What medical professionals don’t know about communicating with hard of hearing patients?

It’s the visit you never saw coming. It’s not a leisurely trip to a sunny destination or a break from the daily grind. This is the unexpected journey to the hospital or a doctor’s office, prompted by a call for help from somewhere on your body. These are problems unrelated to your usual ears or hearing loss challenges.

No one can prepare for the day when their body fails to operate as it used to and always has. Unexpected events arise, and you need medical care. A Google search can’t answer your experience and the change in your body. Sometimes, you must head to the building where people have the brains and knowledge to discover what’s wrong.

The journey to the hospital is full of unknowns. Your focus is on trying to fix the problem. You’re seeking help to identify what’s happening to you. You are hoping for the best. The last thing on your mind is what you will encounter when you enter the medical facilities.

You spent all your life having everything in place to manage your hearing loss in your daily routines. But unexpected places can throw everything off track. One of those places is typically a medical institution.

Medical institutions have a history of practices that do not favour people with hearing loss. The environment, the workers, and the technologies are less favourable for people with hearing loss. However, things are changing. There are some cases where hard of hearing nurses can work with stethoscopes, which shows some efforts for inclusion. But those are far few when it comes to health care and medical practices. Not having people like us or allies in the profession can make us look like foreign aliens when we arrive. 

Relating to hard of hearing patients isn’t a curriculum heavily taught in medical school; anyone who is hard of hearing and has ever encountered medical care can relate to it. Here are five ways medical professionals fail to understand how to communicate with people with hearing loss.

1. They are not wearing clear facemasks to foster trust and dialogue.

We are comfortable seeing more facemasks after the shock the world experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, we see more people in general using facemasks as a precaution. Most people don’t know that some people with hearing loss are lip readers. They get more information about how a person conveys information to them through facial expressions than with tones, voice cadence, and pitch. 

Most medical professionals wouldn’t even consider using clear facemasks as a daily practice to help patients who are hard of hearing or anyone who can pick up non-verbal cues better than words. 

For some patients, doctors can appear untrustworthy while hiding behind a mask. A person who has built an impression of mistrust with the medical profession can experience a lack of trust or respect for the medical advice they’re receiving when engaging with a medical professional whose face isn’t open to see. Clear facemasks help break down the barriers of trust and access to communication.

2. They do not maintain eye contact while talking.

Doctors love to multitask during medical visits, and rightfully so. Administrative work is a large part of their job. If they put things off after your visit, it can be a burden to recall what you shared during the encounter, and they could be working longer hours keeping up with the logistics of record keeping. 

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So when they ask you questions and converse with you, they also multitask—typing or writing information down to capture the conversation. Unfortunately, your face is not on the computer monitor or the paper. You can’t see their face, nor can you benefit from projecting sounds from their voice to your hearing devices.

Sometimes, it’s not when they are typing but when they are examining your body. They could be behind an instrument or device or while observing your body. 

When doctors talk and do not look directly at you but away from you, it can unnecessarily slow down their time. They should practice being present, engaging in eye contact while talking, and facing one another in close proximity. 

Otherwise, we end up sitting in the room, hanging around in our hospital gowns, waiting for instructions told five minutes ago.

3. They don’t realize background sounds can be distracting.

The medical building is not the most qualified place for easy conversation. It can be as noisy as someone sitting inside an aircraft with engines roaring. Okay, I may be exaggerating, but the noise level is from the squeaking wheels of the stools they sit on, the machines’ beeping noises for each button pressed, and the fans circulating and humming noises.

If only the floors were not vinyl but carpet. Unfortunately, they can’t be. It would be unhygienic and require constant cleaning to avoid contamination. But the place is littered with noises, and the poor hearing aids work twice as hard to filter and separate the noisy background from the speech.

4. They don’t understand that your hearing aids or cochlear implants are your lifelines.

In preparation for any surgery or long-term stay at the hospital, you are often asked to strip everything away—watches, jewellery, hearing aids or cochlear implants into a bag or container. 

Removing our hearing devices is like being stripped naked. And while you may be literally naked, at least you have a hospital gown to use in place. There isn’t any protection without your hearing devices. You are not given any other option.

Often, medical staff don’t notice or remember that you can’t hear now. Nothing changes in how they communicate with you, and they don’t bother checking to ensure you understand what they are telling you. 

Your family, who knows you so well and knows how to deal with this situation, isn’t coming to your rescue. Your family can’t be around for this part of the care. You spend your time looking around, observing, watching, and hoping they don’t ask you a question you can’t hear or understand.

If you ask me for my name and date of birth to confirm that I am the correct patient and to ensure that you don’t operate on my wrong body parts, those are standard procedures. Administrators can write those questions down in advance on a laminated page and point them out during our interactions. 

If the conversation is specific, access to an iPad, which allows for speech-to-text translation, is another way to make the patient feel comfortable responding to questions without the fear that they might say something that would jeopardize their health.

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5. They don’t realize hearing fatigue increases under pressure.

Hearing someone you don’t know too well is like speaking in your non-native language. The brain hears the words but needs time to process them. There is a slight delay between understanding what has been said to you and being able to respond with an answer.

The brain gets overwhelmed when the doctor adds a new language and vocabulary to the mix. Now, it’s like getting medical training while figuring out what’s wrong with you. Instead of eight years of training, you have ten minutes of the doctor’s time to spend with you. The process is exhausting.

The worst part is remembering what was told to you word for word and repeating it to your family members. Then, when others have questions for you, you question whether what you heard and understood is the same thing.

The beauty of artificial intelligence technology is that it can operate like a note-taker. A person capturing the conversation and summarizing key points for you to study or refer to later. Most medical professionals are already using similar technologies to manage administrative tasks. 

Supporting people with hearing loss involves sharing conversation records or creating a stand-alone device that allows the patient to have a printed or digital copy of the conversation. If patient privacy is a concern with these technologies, remember that nothing is private when the patient doesn’t know what is going on.

Patient care should be a priority.

While we have become better and more knowledgeable about the body and diseases, today’s medical practices for engaging people with hearing loss have picked up at a different yet lower speed. The quality of care comes from the quality of communication. It looks different from traditional practices and the old way of doing things. Work must be done to make communicating with hard-of-hearing patients a better experience. 

If you liked this post, you’d LOVE Making Sense Sunday

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