Bethesda settles lawsuit with deaf over use of remote interpreters


For years, deaf people have complained that seeking treatment at Bethesda Health was a frightening experience because of flaws in an online video system the Boynton Beach-based hospital used to try to communicate with them.

Now, nearly five years after the Florida Association of the Deaf filed suit in U.S. District Court, hospital officials have agreed to listen to deaf patients when they say they need a live sign language interpreter so they can understand complex medical procedures and so they can tell doctors and nurses what is bothering them.

Under a settlement that was reached just before the long-running dispute was to go to trial last month, hospital officials agreed to consult with deaf patients about whether the video conferencing system is appropriate or whether an interpreter needs to be summoned.

“Hopefully, when a deaf person comes into the hospital and requests a live interpreter, they will honor that request,” said June McMahon, a former president of the Florida Association of the Deaf, who helped launch the lawsuit in 2013. “Hopefully, the situation will be improved.”

It is the second time the hospital has made similar promises to deaf patients to end litigation. But when the hospital in 2005 signed a similar settlement agreement to end a 2002 lawsuit, video equipment - that beams a sign language interpreter into a room on a computer via the Internet - wasn’t widely used.

In 2011, as a result of changes in federal disability regulations, the use of video remote interpreting systems became common in many hospitals, including Bethesda, which operates hospitals on Seacrest Boulevard in Boynton Beach and a sprawling complex west of the city.

The problem, deaf people said, is that the images are often blurry, staff often doesn’t know how to use the equipment and the system frequently crashes. Further, they said, there are practical problems, such as when a Boynton Beach woman had to use it during childbirth or when someone is immobilized on his or her back.

McMahon, a retired teacher who was born deaf and lives in Bonyton Beach, said she experienced the problems firsthand when she went to Bethesda Hospital East for a colonoscopy in 2015. It took staff 45 minutes to get the video equipment to work, and when it finally did, the screen kept freezing. “This was absolutely ridiculous,” McMahon told The Post shortly after the experience.

Attorney Clara Smit, who represented the association and the deaf people who joined the lawsuit, said the settlement doesn’t require the hospital to use live interpreters. Legally, that isn’t possible, she said.

“It’s always up to the hospital to determine what is the most appropriate accomodation,” she said. “But now they have to consult with a deaf person and determine what their needs are. In most cases, if a deaf person says they want an interpreter, they will get one.”

While the lawsuit also sought monetary damages, those terms were confidential, she said. A Florida Atlantic University report said in 2010 there are 16,000 people with profound hearing loss in Palm Beach County. Statewide, the number is 3 million, McMahon said.

To make sure the deaf community is aware of the settlement, McMahon said a meeting is planned at the hospital on March 20. In addition, she said she and Smit or Matthew Dietz, the other attorney who represented the deaf in the lawsuit, will meet with the hospital’s patient advocate.

Smit said some hospitals balk at using live interpreters because it is more expensive than simply plugging in a computer and summoning an interpreter from a remote location.

But, she said, other hospitals in Palm Beach County have responded to the deaf community’s request for live interpreters. Hopefully, Bethesda is joining them, she said. “We’re very pleased and they will be providing live interpreters when necessary,” she said.




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