New app helps B.C. paramedics communicate with patients who are deaf and hard of hearing

·2 min read

A new app is available in B.C. to help paramedics communicate with people who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Leon Baranowski, a paramedic practice leader with B.C. Emergency Health Services, says the app connects paramedics to live American Sign Language interpreters within 20 to 30 seconds.

It will be available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, on their B.C. Emergency Health Services-issued iPhones.

"What's really innovative about this app is the video aspect and being able to connect with somebody and have that face to face and it just makes it more human," Baranowski said.

The impetus for the project came from Scott Jeffery, a sign language service coordinator at the Provincial Language Service, which provides interpreting and translation services to B.C. health authorities.

"[He] really kind of brought forward voices of patients in B.C. that have experienced 911 calls from our paramedics and really were looking to kind of improve the way that we offer our service," said Baranowski.

"[And] the patient is why we're all here —that's the voice that we need to shine through."

Maggie MacPherson/CBC
Maggie MacPherson/CBC

COVID-19 also pushed things forward, he said, noting that personal protective equipment such as masks and face shields were leading to communication challenges with some of these patients.

Baranowski said paramedics are "extremely flexible people" and will find ways to communicate in any situation, often utilizing friends and family, facial and body expressions or pen and paper to get through to a patient.

"But that also has a lot of kind of anxiety for the patient as well, not really truly understanding what's happening," he said.

"And so to be able to utilize this app and really open up two-way communication and let people know that they are going to be OK is invaluable."

While different types of interpreters have been used in the past, the Provincial Health Services Authority says this project marks the first time such video remote interpreting has been used across B.C. and Canada.

Listen to the interview on CBC's All Points West: