The National Health Interview Survey of 2006 found that adults who were deaf or hard of hearing were about three times as likely as adults with good hearing to be in fair or poor health and to have difficulty with physical functioning, and more than four times as likely as adults with good hearing to have experienced serious psychological distress (Schoenborn & Heyman, 2008). Diabetes and high blood pressure were more prevalent among adults who were deaf or had a lot of trouble hearing. Individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing also have higher rates of mental illness. The incidence of STDs, alcohol, and substance abuse are higher among deaf than among hearing individuals (Scheier, 2009).
Many of these health disparities may be exacerbated due to physician-patient miscommunication. Reasons miscommunication can occur include a lack of background health information, differences between patients’ and providers’ perceptions of deafness, limited English proficiency, and struggles with interpretation services. Patients who are deaf usually have no options for obtaining care from health professionals who are fluent in American Sign Language. Differences in language and culture between health professionals and Deaf patients, as well as a lack of knowledge of many health issues in the deaf community, can impede providers ability to make appropriate diagnoses as well as limit patients’ understanding of information on prevention, treatment, and the potential consequences of failing to comply with recommended care ("Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality Health Care Innovations Exchange," 2009).
Many d/Deaf individuals lack background health information, which can make it difficult for them to report medical events, understand medical terms, or self-advocate in the healthcare setting. People who are deaf have fewer opportunities for incidental learning, which is information that hearing people absorb by listening to conversations, the media, or other sources (Harmer, 1999). Growing up, children generally learn about family history and medical conditions by “overhearing” and talking with parents as topics come up. Deaf children may not experience incidental learning, especially if parents or providers find it difficult to communicate family and person health information. Since 90% of deaf individuals come from hearing families, there may have been fewer opportunities for individuals who are deaf to discuss their health care or personal family history. In addition, there may be fewer opportunities for incidental learning about health care through the TV or radio. Misunderstanding medical words is another reason that individuals who are deaf lack background health information, which can negatively influence all aspects of their health care. The average deaf high school graduate reads at a 4th grade level (Scheier, 2009), which means that deaf individuals are at greater risk for misunderstanding medical terms.