By Lolly Wigall
When I first went into private practice in audiology, I remember being excited about promoting the “May Is Better Hearing and Speech Month” campaign. I had purchased my practice in August 1989, and I was planning on going all out for May 1990.
Being a member of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), I ordered ASHA’s kit in January to help me promote Better Hearing and Speech Month. As a new business owner, I needed new clients. I was looking for some help and guidance on attracting new customers. I needed foot traffic.
When the material arrived, I was very disappointed.
There was a lot of material for speech pathologists. There were a couple of brochures about the importance of having a hearing test and protecting your hearing. But, there was not a single brochure about hearing aids.
I called the ASHA office and told them that I felt I had been misled by my professional organization. I explained that even though the cost was minimal, I had wasted my money. It has been over 25 years since then, but I still remember the response of the person in charge of the material. She said the main emphasis of the campaign was on educating the public about the importance of speech pathologists and audiologists. The goal of Better Hearing and Speech Month, she said, was to raise awareness of our profession.
However, as a new business owner, that was not my goal. I was looking for practical help.
I had been expecting ideas for marketing my practice and hearing aids and suggestions on how to get customers in the door. There was no marketing class in my master’s program. In fact, at the time I graduated, ASHA said that it was unethical to sell or dispense hearing aids.
Audiology Still Not Well Known
Even after all these years, the field of audiology is still struggling to “get known” to the public. In fact, even among health care providers, audiology has a low profile. It’s not a field that physicians think of routinely, and Audiology is not a department with high visibility in most hospitals. Even audiologists do not agree on who we are and what we do or should do.
I am still an ASHA member because of my certification, but I have never ordered another kit from them to help me with Better Hearing and Speech Month.
I just looked on the ASHA website and I see there are more items available than there were 25 years ago. There are posters to display and there are informational and educational brochures to give to our patients who have already walked in our door. There are also podcasts you can listen to. But, ASHA’s slant is still not what I am looking for today or what I wanted back in 1990.
All audiologists graduating today have taken training in vestibular issues, cochlear implants, diagnostic testing, syndromes, and other professional issues such as counseling, billing, and coding. They have taken at least one class on amplification, so students have some experience with hearing aids and how to program them. Many new graduates learn how to use real-ear.
Professional organizations in audiology talk about best practices, and standardization of services and documentation. They call for real-ear verification of hearing aid fittings so we can “prove” we are providing our patient with “optimal” hearing levels. The profession wants to train audiologists to perform tests, explain them to the patient, and then help them hear better by selling hearing aids as needed.
It is good that audiologists today are highly trained professionals.
However, without the general public and the medical community being made aware of our education and our skills, we will not be viewed as highly trained professionals. Instead, we will be viewed simply as technicians.
As audiologists we are missing so many opportunities to share what we know with the medical community.
Why is there not a push to educate physicians that diabetics are at risk for hearing loss so an annual hearing test should be part of the regimen? Why is there not a push to educate oncologists that hearing testing should be part of the routine protocol prior to beginning chemotherapy for cancer? Why isn’t hearing monitoring part of every chemotherapy regimen? Why don’t pediatricians routinely send every child for baseline hearing test as part of sports physicals? Why don’t colleges require incoming students to have a baseline hearing test? Why don’t primary-care physicians require a baseline hearing test at age 50 when every other test is done?
I have worked in a hospital and I know that communication among departments can be difficult because everyone is so busy taking care of his or her particular part of the world. But, I believe, audiology is missing out on huge opportunities in the medical field.
Maybe this is clearer to me because I have seen it as a client. I have entered situations as a patient’s spouse who is advocating for his best care.
Steve, my husband, has diabetes. I routinely test him to monitor his hearing and discrimination. When he was first diagnosed, we were sent to a nutritionist and endocrinologist. The nutritionist was very helpful and my husband controls his diabetes primarily with diet and a few medications.
Steve’s endocrinologist refused to refer him for a hearing test since it was not a recommendation of the American Diabetes Association. She did make sure he had his eyes tested, his feet checked, and his blood sugar levels checked regularly.
Last year we decided to go to the Joslin Clinic in Boston. This is a world-renowned institution for monitoring diabetes. They conducted special eye tests to monitor changes in his vision. They measured blood sugar levels. We saw a nutritionist and a dietitian.
I was also expecting to see an audiologist for him to take a baseline hearing test, since it was his first visit to the clinic and we were told there would be testing all day. I was wrong. I asked the endocrinologist as the end of the day why there was no hearing test. She didn’t have an answer. When I checked the clinic’s web site, I discovered the reason: There is not one audiologist listed on the staff. There is no audiology department.
Steve has also been dealing with cancer, for the fourth time. We have been to major hospitals in the Boston area for opinions and treatments, and have seen top oncologists.
He has been through many rounds of different types of chemotherapy “cocktails.” Yet not once in all his visits has a nurse or physician referred him for a baseline hearing test.
You can probably guess that I am not shy about telling these professionals that I am an audiologist. I usually say that any drug that can cause hair loss on the outside of the body could cause hair cell loss in the cochlea, which could lead to hearing loss.
“Yes, that’s true,” is the typical response. It does not, however, lead to, “Let’s set you up with the audiology department for a hearing test.”
The other response I hear is that most people are more worried about the cancer than their hearing. But I worry about communication problems with the family and physicians if my husband loses some of his hearing.
If we educated medical personnel about the importance of baseline hearing tests, then more of them would be conducted. That would result in educating the public one patient at a time.
If every oncology patient was given baseline and monitoring hearing evaluations, think of the explosion of hearing tests being conducted every day. If every diabetic had to have a monitoring hearing test every year, we could talk about hearing protection and awareness.
A Better Hearing Plan
May 2015 will be Better Hearing and Speech Month, and I have my own plan already in place.
I will send a fax blast to over 1500 physicians in the Boston area. I will drop off goodie bags to over 150 physician’s offices with candy (that happens to have my logo) and a laminated sheet with symptoms of hearing loss on one side and reasons for referrals on the other. I will include several brochures from ASHA, pens, and, of course, my business cards. I will have a newsletter to my clients by the end of April. I will email my clients about May is Better Hearing and Speech Month. And, I will write several columns for my local papers about the importance of hearing testing.
I am trying to do my share to educate the medical field in my part of the world. It would be great if every audiologist who works in a hospital, clinic, or in private practice made a concerted effort to educate their medical colleagues.
It would be wonderful if the national audiology organizations reached out to these professionals around the country and if they issued press releases to the national news media.
Finally, wouldn’t it be great if every audiologist put a plan in place this year to reach out to medical professionals in their area and do a little educating for Better Hearing and Speech Month?