Blind people 'failed' on healthcare communication

Ken Reid
Image caption Ken Reid caught an infection after his after-care information was given to him in a format he could not read

Blind and partially-sighted people can struggle to get healthcare information in a suitable format, a charity says.

The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) said patients risked missing out on treatments because of the problem.

It warned that relying on others to read documents for them was a breach of medical confidentiality.

The Scottish government said it expected health boards to provide accessible information.

Report author Laura Jones said there was danger blind or partially-sighted people could miss appointments or fail to fully understand their treatment.

"This can put patients at risk of missing treatment as well as being confused or misinformed about their healthcare needs," she said.

"The NHS itself puts great emphasis on the cost, in money and time, of missed appointments to over-burdened clinics. So giving patients accessible information makes sense."

Image caption Ken prefers to receive communication by email but others might want instructions in Braille or as audio

Ken Reid, who has been blind for more than 30 years, said he often found the system frustrating.

"I had to go in for an operation. All the materials about the operation were in print. I didn't know what was going to happen, didn't know how long it was going to take. I didn't know anything about it," he said.

"But what was most critical was that afterwards, when I was sent home, I was given a paper document that told me what I was supposed to do to look after myself.

"I got an infection I and am pretty sure that was because I had no idea how to care for my wound. I was doing what I thought was right but it didn't seem to be good enough.

"I couldn't read the information that was provided to me."

Mr Reid found a lack of consistency between different medical departments. One understood he preferred to receive communication by email, but another - ironically ophthalmology - would still send letters.

"I got sent letters and had to get someone to read it aloud to me. So they knew immediately what is happening to me in my health. That is totally unacceptable and makes me angry," he said.

Image caption Regular doctor's letters are of little use for blind or visually impaired people if they are not in a format they can read

Other patients have reported being sent letters requesting confirmation of appointments which meant they could be sent to the bottom of waiting lists for not replying.

The report is published almost 10 years since the passing of patient rights legislation which stated: "You have the right to be given information about your care and treatment in a format or language that meets your needs."

It found that some patients were still not informed they could request information in alternative formats, while others were bluntly told they could cope without one. Some lacked confidence to request accessible formats.

Increasingly, healthcare information is being communicated online, the report notes.

But the report author said levels of digital uptake can be significantly lower for people with disabilities.

"Visual barriers such as inconsistent font-sizes prevent blind and partially sighted people from accessing information with ease. And while there have been advances in screen-reading software, such supportive technology can be expensive," she said.

A Scottish government spokesperson said: "We are clear that blind and partially sighted people should absolutely get healthcare information in accessible formats.

"NHS boards are responsible for delivering this information and we expect all boards to follow the Charter of Patient Rights, which stipulates that everyone should have access to information and services in a way appropriate to their needs.

"The charter was revised and strengthened last summer and we wrote to all boards to remind them of their responsibilities under it."

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