Managing Your Practice

The ADA and hearing-impaired patients


 

A recent claim against a New Jersey physician attracted considerable attention in both the medical and legal communities, not only because it resulted in a substantial jury award, but because that award was not covered by malpractice insurance.

Dr. Joseph S. Eastern, a dermatologist in Belleville, N.J.

Dr. Joseph S. Eastern

It is a good reminder for the rest of us: Your malpractice policy covers only allegations of malpractice, which is generally defined as negligence or deviation from the standard of care. This case involved a charge of discrimination against a hearing-impaired patient – which meant the physician not only had to fund his own defense, but was personally responsible for the $400,000 award against him.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was designed to protect individuals with various disabilities against discrimination in various public situations – including, specifically, “the professional office of a health care professional.”

When the disability is impaired hearing, the law requires physicians to provide any “auxiliary aids and services” that might be necessary to insure clear communication between doctor and patient. In the vast majority of such situations, a pad and pencil will satisfy that requirement. But occasionally it does not, particularly when complex medical concepts are involved; and in such cases, as the New Jersey trial demonstrated, failure to make the necessary extra effort can be very expensive.

The claim involved a hearing-impaired patient with lupus erythematosus under treatment by a rheumatologist. For almost 2 years the patient’s partner and her daughter provided translation; but that arrangement was inadequate, she testified, because her partner and daughter were unfamiliar with medical terminology and she was “unable to understand and participate in her care,” which left her “unaware of risks and available alternatives.”

She repeatedly requested that the rheumatologist provide an American Sign Language interpreter for her office visits. He refused on grounds that the cost of an interpreter would exceed the payment he would receive for the visits, which made it an “undue financial burden,” and therefore exempt from ADA requirements.

But the undue-burden exemption is not automatic; it must be demonstrated in court. And the jury decided the rheumatologist’s annual income of $425,000 rendered the cost of an interpreter quite affordable.

The lessons are clear: Physicians must take antidiscrimination laws seriously, particularly when uninsurable issues are involved; and we must be constantly aware of the needs of disabled patients, to be sure their care is not substantially different from that of any other patient.

In the case of hearing-impaired or deaf patients, it is important to remember that forms of communication that are quite adequate for most are not appropriate for some. Lip reading, written notes, and the use of family members as interpreters may be perfectly acceptable to one patient and unsuitable for another.

If the patient agrees to written notes and lip reading, as most do, you need to remember to speak slowly, and to write down critical information to avoid any miscommunications. And as always, it is crucial to document all communication, as well as the methods used for that communication – specifically including the fact that the patient agreed to those forms of communication. Documentation, as I’ve often said, is like garlic: There is no such thing as too much of it.

Should a patient not agree that written notes are sufficient, other alternatives can be offered: computer transcription, assistive listening devices, videotext displays (often available in hospitals), and telecommunication devices such as TTY and TDD. But if the patient rejects all of those options and continues to insist on a professional interpreter, the precedent set by the New Jersey case suggests that you need to acquiesce, even if the interpreter’s fee exceeds the visit reimbursement – and the ADA prohibits you from passing your cost along to the patient. But any such cost will be far less than a noninsured judgment against you.

If you must go that route, make sure the interpreter you hire is familiar with medical terminology, and is not acquainted or related to the patient (for HIPAA reasons). Your state may have an online registry of available interpreters, or your hospital may have a sign language interpreter on its staff that they might allow you to “borrow.”

The good news is several states have responded to this issue by introducing legislation that would require health insurance carriers to pay for the cost of interpreters, although none, as of this writing, have yet become law.

Dr. Eastern practices dermatology and dermatologic surgery in Belleville, N.J. He is the author of numerous articles and textbook chapters, and is a longtime monthly columnist for Dermatology News. Write to him at [email protected].

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