Accommodating people with hearing loss: It’s an issue medicine must face

By David H. Kirkwood

One of my all-time favorite posts on my colleague Gael Hannan’s Better Hearing Consumer blog is called “Face me, Doc, I’m still hard of hearing.”

In her characteristically humorous style, Gael describes the travails she has faced in her dealings with medical personnel of various kinds.

There’s her visit to an ENT (of all people!) who foils Gael’s efforts to read his lips by constantly speaking to her with his face turned toward her medical charts; her encounter with a medical technician, who has Gael remove her hearing aids for an MRI, then advises her, “We’ll tell you what to do during the test; you’ll hear my voice telling you when to breathe in, hold, and let it out”; and her eight-year relationship with her family doctor, who has not yet completely mastered the art of communicating with a hard-of-hearing patient.

Gael makes all these experiences funny to read about. However, when you read between the lines of her post, you begin to grasp how frustrating, upsetting, and downright scary it must be for patients who are unable to understand what their physician is saying to them. Consulting with your doctor about conditions, diagnoses, and treatments that may fundamentally affect your life is difficult enough for any of us. To go through such an inherently fraught situation with a communications problem thrown in must be agony.

Tens of millions of people in the U.S. and Canada suffer from hearing loss, especially among the older patient population that is most likely to seek medical care. Surely, then, it behooves the medical establishment in North America and beyond to make sure that physicians, PAs, nurses, and medical technicians are taught and constantly reminded to follow some basic rules for interacting with patients and family members with hearing problems.

 

PHYSICIANS’ HEARING LOSS IS ALSO AN ISSUE

I was reminded of Gael’s post when I read about a recent study looking into an issue that is like the mirror image of the one she addressed.

Researchers from the University of California, Davis, the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, and the University of Michigan surveyed deaf/hard-of-hearing (DHoH) physicians and medical students nationwide to determine if they are receiving the accommodations they need to overcome the barriers to pursuing careers in the medical profession. Their findings are reported in the February 2013 issue of Academic Medicine.

Among the conclusions of the survey was that DHoH physicians and students seemed generally satisfied with the accommodations that their employers and educators are making to their hearing loss.

However, in my mind, what’s more important than the specific findings is that the study was even conducted. The existence of the study reflects a welcome awareness within the medical establishment of the importance of hearing loss. It is also recognition that people who are deaf or hard of hearing can be successful health care providers and, moreover, that they may bring to their work the kind of sensitivity to the needs of hard-of-hearing patients that my colleague Gael Hannan has found to be in short supply.

In an interview with the news room at UC Davis Health System, Darin Latimore, an assistant dean there and a co-author of the study, said, “We found that many deaf and hard-of-hearing students and physicians are interested in primary care practice and have a special affinity with those who also have a hearing loss. By enhancing training for a diverse range of physicians, we can improve quality of care and access for underserved populations, especially individuals who are deaf or have a hearing loss.”

Amen to that.