We at Deaf Vee Journal were asked whether it was possible for a Deaf* patient to die from the hospital’s use of VRI services in a response to our recent article highlighting Valerie Lancer’s story, and our answer is yes. We want to make it clear that it is not so much about the VRI service…it is the misuse of VRI services (and subsequent lack of an qualified interpreter at the site) that can be deadly. 

Consider the story of William “Bill” Pascoe and Anna Marie Pascoe, a Deaf married couple from Oro Valley, Arizona. It was October 2, 2016 when Mr. Pascoe was taken to Oro Valley Hospital by ambulance after experiencing pain and shortness of breath (Alaimo, 2018). Mr. Pascoe died the next day with Mrs. Pascoe sitting by his bedside, and Mrs. Pascoe did not know her husband was going to pass away until it was too late. The following year Mrs. Pascoe filed a lawsuit, claiming that the lack of effective communication with hospital personnel had adverse effects on her husband’s medical care. The lawsuit stated that, instead of arranging a live onsite ASL interpreter as requested, Oro Valley Hospital personnel tried to set up a webcam-based VRI system but the images repeatedly froze on the display screen then resorted to gesturing and lipreading (Alaimo, 2018).

Now, let’s look at potential scenarios. When the VRI device fails, what could happen? 

Hospital personnel are human beings like us, and they do make errors. A 2016 study from the John Hopkins School of Medicine argues that over 250,000 people in the United States die every year from medical errors, which is now classified as “the third leading cause of death” after heart disease and cancer, although other reports assert the figure is as high as 440,000. Physicians could misdiagnose you and proceed with the wrong treatment, which could be a life-threatening medical error in and of itself for some situations. Another instance of a life-threatening medical error is the provision of medications that you are severely allergic to. 

Weather is a second important element. Inclement weather can and does happen in some parts of the United States and Canada. It is not always possible to have an interpreter drive, or fly out (in the case of Alaska or Hawaii), to the hospital in the middle of a storm if the VRI device fails. If the power goes out at the hospital in times of natural disasters (i.e., hurricanes, tornadoes, tropical storms), it affects VRI device use and this is a key point to think about given the reality of climate change. 

Of course, the dangers of using VRI services are not limited to just medical emergencies–there are psychiatric crises and other healthcare settings to examine. When you do a simple search on Google on the pros and cons of using VRI services in healthcare, you might have noticed that most results focus on the pros. 

Publication bias refers to the fact that entities tend to publish studies, articles, or press releases on the positive effects, benefits or results of a specific treatment/approach just to look good, especially when they stand to gain profits from it. This holds true when it comes to the use of VRI services. Health IT Outcomes wrote a newsletter release about a nine-year Vietnamese patient who died from a reaction to the drug Reglan in the hospital due to the lack of a qualified on-site professional interpreter and used the patient’s death to boost the profile of Stratus Video Interpreting, a VRI service provider in the United States. This is a classic example of how VRI service providers, insurance companies, and hospitals could use patient deaths to “justify” the use of VRI services, but not the use of on-site interpreting services as a whole. 

What is the main point of this article? Other than members of and knowledgeable advocates for the Deaf* communities, nobody seems to really want to talk or do anything about the dark side of VRI services in healthcare contexts and that needs to change.