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UCLA dental course addresses barriers faced by deaf patients

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Posted at 2:29 PM, Feb 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-07 14:29:40-05

LOS ANGELES — Going to the dentist can be an anxious experience for anyone, but even more daunting when there are communication barriers.

Because of cultural and language barriers, people who are deaf or hard of hearing often lack access to efficient communication in the health care system. These disparities can lead to misdiagnoses, mistreatment, limited access to care, and poorer outcomes.

"Without communication, you don't have trust," said Andrew Moore, a deaf interpreter and American Sign Language instructor.

Deaf since birth, Moore has spent years advocating for the people in the Deaf community, working to bridge the gap between the hearing world and the Deaf world.

"Some individuals overlook the value of communication, but us as humans, the way that we experience and move through life is through communication. And it's important," said Moore.

The National Association for the Deaf says most medical training programs fail to adequately prepare medical staff to effectively communicate with deaf individuals. Additionally, health care is routinely inaccessible to deaf people due to communication and linguistic barriers.

Last year, Moore shared his passion for accessibility, communication, and language with dental students at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).

"The former president of the Special Patient Care Club, Jonina Capino, was inspired, initially, talking to people at the Special Olympics. And gave a charge to rest of the board to begin implementing and finding ways that we can increase sign language knowledge," said Benjamin Kurnick, a third-year student at the UCLA School of Dentistry.

The club aims to increase awareness, understanding, and empathy with the special needs population.

After securing funding from Dr. Eric Sung, UCLA professor and chair for Special Patient Care, Kurnick teamed up with Moore to launch a five-part course for dental students.

"Not only learning about American Sign Language but also learning about the culture and the history of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community," said Kurnick. "With every barrier to health care, there's going to be people seeking out health care less."

Moore shared personal experiences from the Deaf community with students.

"It's not necessarily an interpreter for the deaf; it's an interpreter for both parties who are having this exchange. And so, sometimes, a doctor or a dentist or a medical professional or specialist is not adequately trained in how to engage a deaf person or the Deaf community," said Moore. "Sometimes, with an interpreter, it can be a little time-consuming. And having to facilitate back and forth, the doctor could choose to just not want to deal with it and leave."

Moore says doctors will often speak to the interpreter rather than the patient directly.

"They will just be focused on the interpreter and be saying things like, 'Oh, tell them, tell them, tell them.' And that's a little discouraging because you don't feel that patient, doctor relationship or that rapport."

He talked to dental students about finding creative solutions to address gaps in communication.

"Whether it be writing back and forth, whether that be having a clear mask as an option available," said Moore. "And then moving on to the fun, kind of, dental office-related signs: brushing your teeth, flossing, toothbrush."

Despite being an elective course, dozens of students attended the virtual sessions.

"It was incredible. We had so much positive feedback and so much interest," said Kurnick.

While the course only received funding to run one time, Kurnick says conversations are ongoing to offer it to students in the future.

The course lecture covering American Sign Language dental terms is available online for anyone to access.

Providers can also find resources online offering strategies to improve communication between health care professionals and patients.

"We would love the opportunity to help expand other health care professionals' knowledge and to be able to help serve the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community," said Kurnick. "My belief is, as much as exposure we can get, it can only benefit us in the long run."