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12 tips for communicating with Deaf patients

Deaf woman having her vision checked with interpreter present providing communication support

Communication barriers are the number one reason Deaf people have had poorer health compared to hearing people.

Three examples of poor access impacting health and wasting resources

Booking an appointment

It actually starts with making an appointment. In some places, Deaf patients still have to walk into their surgery to book time with their doctor, because of the lack of SMS, email or online appointment systems.

Remote Consultations

An ordinary phone call is not an accessible medium for communicating with a Deaf patient. This includes holding consultations, sharing test results or confirming appointment details. According to the Accessible Information Standard, alternative communication channels must be arranged that meet the communication preferences of your patient.

Alternative methods might include text message or email for notifications, or booking a BSL interpreter for remote consultations using a Video Relay Service (VRS).


Have a system to call people into the consulting room which doesn’t rely on shouting out their name.

12 Tips for communicating with Deaf patients

  1. Book an interpreter. A patient should not use a friend or family member to interpret for them. They will not know medical jargon or be trained to interpret health information, but most importantly, your patient will have no independence or privacy if a friend or family member accompanies them.
  2. Talk directly to your patient, not the person interpreting for them.
  3. Make sure you have your patient’s attention before talking. The patient will need to be able to see the interpreter.
  4. Maintain eye contact whilst communicating. Don’t talk to your patient whilst looking at your computer screen,  filling out paperwork or turning around. Avoid covering your mouth with your hands or paper.
  5. Use normal lip movement. You don’t need to over exaggerate each word, and don’t mumble, because this can make it difficult to lip-read.
  6. Speak at a normal volume. Shouting can be uncomfortable for a patient wearing hearing aids.
  7. Make sure the room is well lit so that the patient can see your face clearly.
  8. Speak in plain English at a normal speed. 
  9. Use written notes or diagrams to assist if you are having difficulty explaining something. But remember that Deaf people have different communication needs, so writing information down won’t be helpful for everyone.  If your patient doesn’t understand you, try and think of a different way to explain yourself rather than repeating the same words again.
  10. Use gestures and facial expressions to help explain yourself. Show with your face if something is painful, scary, or nothing to worry about.
  11. Point to parts of your body if necessary.
  12. Keep checking to make sure your patient understands you.  If your patient doesn’t understand you, try and think of a different way to explain yourself.

It’s vital that the surgery/hospital (not the patient) book an interpreter in advance of the patient’s appointment. This is a basic right for Deaf people and one that will ensure your patient has a clear understanding of their health and the information you are telling them.

To book an interpreter, visit the NRCPD website.

Collage of photos depicting different types of communication access to NHS health services

Review of the NHS Accessible Information Standard

Urgent priorities for change, informed by patients’ lived experience and NHS professionals.


Why does SignHealth provide specialist services?

There are a number of gaps in service provisions that can significantly impact the health and wellbeing of Deaf people. We provide psychological therapy, domestic abuse support, advocacy, outreach and residential services to support Deaf people who would otherwise struggle due to communication barriers.

We are working to improve the health and wellbeing of Deaf people. Please consider donating today.