Hearing management

14 June 2018

Students develop app to improve communication with deaf patients

Communication is a challenge for deaf people, but two UCT medical students are exploring methods to make things a little easier.


Two University of Cape Town (UCT) medical students saw a gap in the market and started to develop an application to improve communication with the deaf community.

Fourth year medical students, Banele Mhlongo and Vuma Mthembu, believe that communicating with the deaf is vital to create stronger health systems – because people are more likely to make use of healthcare facilities if there are no communication barriers.

There is a strong focus on communication with patients in the UCT Health Science faculty. Students already learn isiXhosa and Afrikaans to help them understand patients and respond to questions when trying to source a medical history — imperative for healthcare professionals to make an accurate diagnosis and give satisfactory treatment options.

A new level of understanding

Mhlongo and Mthembu, to avoid deaf patients becoming isolated or feeling marginalised, are in the process of developing an app and a website where medical conditions, along with their symptoms, and treatment and medication for certain common conditions are explained – in a language they can understand.

Video content will show sign language interpreters and health professionals explaining everything patients need to know about asthma, for example.

The short videos explain what could trigger asthma attacks, how they can be treated, why it's important to avoid certain medication and how to manage the side effects.

Using sign-language

Mhlongo says, "We saw the gap after realising that the deaf community has no alternative language other than sign language, because lip-reading is unreliable. And when examining, about 70% of a diagnosis comes from a patient's history."

The two students are currently using Instagram to engage with a younger deaf audience by posting pictures and meme-style short, humourous captioned images, explaining the most common health conditions.

Mhlongo added, "Our aim is to pioneer sign-language teaching for all programmes in the medical school, and to get other institutions to adopt it."

They are eager to expand their project and are looking for supporters to fully develop their important innovation, ensuring healthcare access for all in South Africa.

Image credit: iStock


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Hearing Expert

Dr Kara Hoffman graduated from UCT in 2004, thereafter she completed her year of community service in Durban. In 2010 she completed her Masters Degree in Paediatric Aural Rehabilitation from UKZN. In 2016, she became a Doctor of Audiology through the University of Arizona (ATSU). Dr Hoffman and her partner Lauren Thompson opened a fully diagnostic audiology practice called Thompson & Hoffman Audiology Inc. In 2011 with world-class technology and equipment to be able to offer the broad public all hearing-related services including hearing testing for adults and babies, vestibular (balance) assessments and rehabilitation, industrial audiology, hearing devices, central auditory processing assessments for school-aged children, school screening, neonatal hearing screening programmes at Alberlito and Parklands Hospital, cochlear implants and other implantable devices, medicolegal assessments and advanced electroacoustic assessments of hearing. Thompson and Hoffman Audiology Inc. are based at Alberlito Hospital in Ballito, St Augustines Hospital in Durban and at 345 Essenwood Road, Musgrave. The practices are all wheelchair friendly. There are three audiologists that practice from Thompson & Hoffman – including Dr Kara Hoffman, Lauren Thompson & Minette Lister. The practice boasts professional, highly qualified, and extensive diagnostic services where all your hearing healthcare needs can be met. The additional licensing in vestibular assessment and rehabilitation, paediatric rehabilitation and cochlear implantation places this practice in one of the top specialist audiological positions in South Africa, with a wealth of experience in all clinical areas of audiology and is a very well respected and sought-after practice.

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