Making telehealth equitable for deaf and hard of hearing communities

Social isolation due to COVID-19 poses specific challenges to children and adults who live with hearing loss disorders. UK College of Health Sciences and University of Colorado School of Medicine faculty received an administrative supplement to an existing National Institutes of Health grant to uncover potential barriers faced by families with children who are deaf or hard of hearing. A black-haired Hispanic child talks in sign language to an adult

“COVID-19 Effects on Children who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing and their Families: Rapid and Rigorous Mixed-Methods Research to Inform Care” seeks to uncover any potential boundaries families across the Commonwealth have experienced, and how these issues can be communicated to their health care providers.

Joneen Lowman, PhD, CCC-SLP, associate professor in communication sciences and disorders, is a co-principal investigator on the project. Lowman is collaborating with Christina Studts, PhD, MSPH, LCSW, associate professor at the University of Colorado College of Medicine, who is the project’s principal investigator (PI).

While technology has helped most people stay connected during the pandemic, popular video conferencing platforms and connection issues present challenges to communities who experience hearing loss disorders. This is especially important to consider as health care shifts into telehealth practice to comply with public health protocols.

“These technologies are wonderful, but if I’m trying to sign my name during a video call with poor connection, my screen could end up blurry and impossible for the other person to translate. It absolutely could produce delays for American Sign Language communicators,” Lowman said.

Lowman said she, Studts (PI), and the rest of their team extended previous research after receiving consistent concerns from both the family members and health care providers within the existing project’s advisory board.

“These families were encountering financial instabilities, mental health problems, and issues with access to care,” Lowman said. “We quickly realized there was more research that needed to be done to find solutions for deaf and hard of hearing communities.”

The survey-based extension includes reconnecting with families of children who experience low-incidence disorders from the original study to understand the emotional, social, and financial impact of COVID-19 on their family dynamic.

Although the project is focused on infants and adolescents, Lowman believes the survey findings may be applicable for larger populations who live with low-incidence disorders.

“Our team aims to make sustainable change,” Lowman continued. “This pandemic has shone a needed light on telehealth practice and the many ways we can continue to improve it and make it equitable for all.”