Assistive technology is one of the crowning achievements of the digital sector thus far, with home AI, motion activated doors, and self-driving wheelchairs improving the quality of life for disabled and elderly people in ways that would have been unimaginable only a few decades ago. It was, therefore, heartening to hear Matt Hancock, the new Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, list technology was one of his top three priorities for the health and social care system going forward.
However, there is a risk that as the digital revolution sweeps the healthcare sector, those with accessibility issues – and their specific needs – are at risk of being forgotten.
The limited availability of face-to-face British Sign Language interpreters has led some hospitals to being using an iPad video call service so as to provide access to interpreters. Users can simply pick up a tablet, launch an app and be instantly connected to a video interpreter. However, what appears to be a lifeline on the surface has been fraught with operational difficulties.
Several deaf individuals using NHS hospitals have reported feeling that these iPad interpreters are inappropriate, especially in cases where sensitive information is being communicated. Can an interpreter on a computer screen really convey the empathy and sympathy that is often required in a healthcare environment?
Contrary to some popular commentary, I’m not about to claim mobile devices are single-handedly whittling away at people’s empathy and turning us into a legion of tech-reliant zombies. However, there are several situations where finding out about a serious health condition through a screen feels undeniably callous. A BBC Victoria Derbyshire investigation into the matter heard from one user of a digital interpreter service who was appalled at being told she had miscarried via an iPad screen.
Furthermore, internet speeds in NHS hospitals are often too weak for video interpreting services to work properly, with distortion often leading to calls being, somewhat ironically, uninterpretable. Plus, if a call drops out entirely, the service may well reconnect to a completely different interpreter, setting the conversation back to square one.
This is just one example of a ground-breaking technology which isn’t fulfilling its potential for disabled people. The foundations for it to run adequately are simply not in place yet.
It’s not just the hearing impaired being left in the lurch. Many mammogram machines still can’t be lowered to an appropriate height to accommodate a wheelchair user. The sights, sounds, and smells of hospital corridors can prove overwhelming for those with sensory processing issues, but there has yet to be steps taken to provide alternative waiting spaces to those who require them.
Technology of course provides far more opportunities to ease accessibility barriers than it does setbacks. But while a certain technology may benefit one disabled person, it may well set back another.
Disabled access is not one-size-fits-all. The push towards smartphones and tablets in a medical environment can frequently exclude those with sight problems, for example. Voice-activated technology has revolutionised healthcare for those with dexterity limitations but is hopeless for those who cannot speak. When it comes to elderly care, many older members of the community struggle to operate newer technologies, and can feel uncomfortable with the new digitally-driven treatment systems.
As Commissioners rush ahead to spend the $487m Hancock has pledged to transform the use of technology within the health service, there is a risk that this is spent on flashy new gadgets and technologies – barcode tracking for individual patients, a GP on a smartphone app in your pocket, finally updating the NHS’s computer systems to Windows 10 instead of the commercially failed Windows Vista– and less time is dedicated to making sure existing systems are adapted for those who need them, but must approach them in slightly a different way. We cannot afford for either one to be left behind.