“I’m calling with some instructions for your upcoming medical procedure,” the nurse spoke rapidly into the phone.
“I have hearing loss. Can you please email them to me instead?” I asked.
“Umm,” she replied hesitantly, “I would have to get special permission.”
“OK, let’s try it,” I replied, “but you will need to speak more slowly so I can understand what you are saying.”
The nurse meant well and started off at a good pace, “No food or drink after 10pm,” but soon sped up given her familiarity with the information and as my seeming comprehension eased her back into her normal speech patterns.
With several reminders, we made it through the instructions, but it begs the question: Why isn’t medical treatment more hearing-loss friendly?
Increased Awareness Needed in Health Care Settings
According to the World Health Organization, one in every ten people—nearly 700 million people worldwide—will have disabling hearing loss by 2050. While hearing loss impacts people of all generations, the prevalence increases with age, meaning as the population ages, hearing loss will become the norm rather than the exception in medical settings. And since older adults typically consume more healthcare services, it may already be. Medical training must adapt to meet the needs of this growing population.
Communication problems are not limited to general medical settings alone. Even at audiologist offices, the receptionists are often difficult to understand. This is disappointing, especially for hearing care professionals aspiring to provide person-centered care.
Lack of Hearing Access Creates Dangers in a Hospital Settings
Indignities become more dangerous when in a hospital setting. In this clip from “We Hear You,” our documentary about the lived hearing loss experience, Toni Iacolucci explains the significant challenges she faced when caring for her brother as he battled cancer many years ago.
Their struggles inspired her to advocate for better hearing access in hospital settings. Toni now serves on Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA)’s Communication Access in Health Care task force to educate hospitals about how they can be more inclusive. The key is making sure communication is clear, precise, and provided in a way that works for each patient.
Some Easy Ways to Make Medical Care More Hearing Loss Friendly
Problems like the one I had are easy to solve. Small changes in procedures could make communication clearer and less stressful. And as is the case with most accessibility measures, everyone would benefit.
Train personnel to speak slowly and clearly
This is helpful for people for hearing loss, but everyone else too. Medical jargon can be confusing or at least unfamiliar for everyone. Slow down to aid with comprehension.
Provide important details in writing
Nervousness and stress—which many of us feel with anything medical related—can make it harder to comprehend and retain information. When information is supplied in writing it is easier to refer back to and to share with family.
Implement alternative ways to alert people in the waiting area
It is hard for people with hearing loss to hear their name called in a doctor’s office or hospital waiting area. When people check in, ask if they prefer to receive a text instead so they don’t need to sit at high alert waiting for their name to be called. In some offices, wait times are substantial.
There are separate guides for patients and providers. One important recommendation is for each person with hearing loss to fill out a Communication Access Plan (CAP) to share with their doctors. The plan details communication requirements and preferences and can be incorporated into medical files at each doctor’s office. A sample CAP can be found here.
Better Training Must Begin Today
In a medical setting, clear and accurate communication benefits everyone—including those providing care. Better communication reduces risk, as well as hospital readmission rates. Appropriate training must begin now.