Today’s Solutions: July 21, 2024


In an unprecedented step to improve emergency care for the deaf population, the North East Ambulance Service (NEAS) in England implemented a British Sign Language (BSL) Relay Service. Starting last month, all ambulances in the region were outfitted with iPads running the SignVideo app, allowing first responders to interact with deaf and BSL-using patients successfully. This innovation promises to make emergency services more accessible to diverse people and save more lives in critical situations.

Making emergency response more equitable with technology

The SignVideo app connects ambulance personnel to a video interpreter 24 hours a day, seven days a week, allowing for clear and accurate communication with Deaf or BSL-speaking patients. This service ensures that first responders can assess a patient’s condition and deliver proper care. 

Mark Johns, NEAS’ engagement, diversity, and inclusion manager, emphasized the importance of this initiative: “As an emergency service, we are committed to delivering high-quality patient care and making sure all patients receive prompt and effective communication during emergency situations.”

Real-time communication in motion 

A demonstration video shows how the service works: a paramedic writes a note informing the patient that they will contact an interpreter via the SignVideo app. Within seconds, a video interpreter joins the conference, allowing for a seamless exchange of information. This allows the patient to explain their symptoms clearly and aids the paramedic in obtaining informed permission before starting treatment.

Rachel Austin, the coordinator from Hartlepool Deaf Centre, lauded the initiative, saying, “Deaf BSL users struggle to access the ambulance service and many other services because of the communication barriers and the lack of support and assistance that is available. It’s great to see this new service being introduced by NEAS.”

Addressing a significant need

The UK government estimates that there are approximately 151,000 BSL users in England, Scotland, and Wales, of which 87,000 are Deaf. This new program is a big step toward equity for people who have long faced hurdles to getting emergency care. The NEAS attempts to improve patient outcomes by taking the initiative to overcome these issues.

A history of innovation

SignVideo was founded in 2004 by Deaf entrepreneur Jeff McWhitney to provide immediate BSL translation services. Since its creation, the technology has been widely implemented across the UK in a variety of industries, including government, healthcare, and emergency services. The 999 BSL service, which allows deaf and hard-of-hearing BSL users to call for emergency assistance via a video hotline, is one illustration of its reach.

SignVideo handles over 100,000 BSL video calls each year, with an average response time of less than 45 seconds. This efficiency is critical in emergencies, but it also serves non-emergency purposes such as community participation and staff training.

Training and future implementation

The NEAS intends to train frontline staff on how to use this technology over the following year, with complete adoption planned in the spring of 2025. Although this service is now limited to North England, it establishes a model for enhancing emergency communications for deaf people around the world.

Community leaders are hopeful about the service’s effectiveness. Austin continued, “It will hopefully remove a barrier that people experience and provide a useful tool to support deaf BSL users and paramedics to communicate with each other in challenging circumstances. It will help to save more lives, ensure people get the best outcome, and help achieve equality between deaf and hearing people.”

A step toward greater equality

The installation of the SignVideo app in NEAS ambulances is a big step toward making emergency services more inclusive. By ensuring that deaf and BSL-using patients receive the same level of care and communication as hearing patients, NEAS not only improves patient outcomes but also sets a precedent for other regions to emulate.

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