Technology is is helping to ease the vulnerability deaf people have been experiencing during the pandemic, a charity has said
Many deaf people in Scotland are more socially isolated now than before the coronavirus crisis because of the additional communications barriers forced on them by the lockdown.
And the chief officer of deafscotland – a leading organisation for deaf issues in Scotland – believes their problems would have been compounded had the use of video consulting in health and care services not been stepped up during the pandemic.
Janis McDonald said Covid-19 is a “communications virus” that is having a significant impact on many people affected by deafness. The use of face masks muffles the voice and covers the mouth, preventing lip-reading, and physical distancing created barriers beyond the effective one-metre range of hearing aids.
However, she believes the Near Me video consulting system now being extensively used in Scotland is helping to ease the vulnerability deaf people have been experiencing during the pandemic.
“Like everyone else, people with a hearing loss need access to healthcare but that would have been extremely difficult without video conferencing,” she said, alluding to the fact that there were now far fewer face-to-face consultations with doctors and other health and care professionals, and telephone consultations weren’t really an option for many deaf people.
“Near Me has provided a vital lifeline to health services and we would welcome its continued use when the current crisis ends.”
McDonald was speaking as the Scottish Government team behind Near Me launched a major engagement exercise to find out what people think about how the system might be improved for the future.
The government’s vision is that all health and care consultations in Scotland are provided by Near Me whenever it is appropriate – and it is seeking views on that vision.
The Near Me team – part of a national programme known as Technology Enabled Care – is looking for feedback through a survey which can be completed online. There is also the option to feed-back by email or by phone.
The use of video consultations in Scotland has rapidly escalated since the pandemic started. Prior to March, there were around 300 video consultations using the Near Me system; by June, there were almost 17,000 every week, with around 150,000 in total. And it’s thought that includes around 30,000 people who have hearing issues.
McDonald said that because of the social and economic lockdown, technologies such as Near Me were being increasingly used in all aspects of life, though communication remains problematic for many people.
“What we at deafscotland are calling the communications virus is creating barriers to access to social, economic and cultural opportunities,” she said. “It is hitting at the very essence of people, which is the need to communicate, and many who have hearing loss are feeling isolated, vulnerable and frightened. Thankfully, Near Me is helping to ensure that they can access health and social care.”
Dr Gregor Smith, interim chief medical officer for Scotland, said: “It is important that we understand how people want to access health and care services. Video consulting is new for many people, so understanding the public’s views is an essential part of developing the Near Me video service.
“We know the answer will not be the same for everyone. Some people find a video consultation makes it easier to attend appointments, others have concerns about using digital technology.
“The Near Me team wants to hear from everyone so they can shape the service for the future. I encourage people to get involved and give their views.”
Clare Morrison, who co-leads the national Near Me programme, added: “Clearly, people with hearing issues are able to benefit from video consulting, as are those who have other communications barriers. However, as we plan ahead we want to understand what they – and the general public at large – think about Near Me and its future use, and we hope our survey will allow us to do that.”
The survey asks a range of questions relating to Near Me. It is intended to publish the survey’s findings alongside other feed-back, which will then influence the future use of Near Me.
The Near Me public engagement exercise is running from 29 June to 24 July.