In today’s world access to medical care is more important than ever before. While the medical field is concerned with health and wellness, too often accommodating patients with hearing loss is overlooked. In part, this is due to how under-treated hearing loss is in our society, but other factors contribute to the situation as well. With some thoughtfulness and consideration, best practices for patients with hearing loss can make medical care more accessible to everyone.
Hearing Loss and Aging
As we age, our need for medical care typically increases. At the same time, aging also puts people at higher risk for conditions that may restrict their access and understanding of care. Hearing loss is just such a condition. Risk of hearing loss increases as we age, as a combination of cumulative hearing loss from throughout our life and an auditory system that becomes more prone to damage as we get older. We have a one in three chance of developing hearing loss by the time we are 65 and a nine out of ten chance by age 90.
Even though hearing loss is common and can be effectively managed with hearing aids, many people are resistant to acknowledging and treating their hearing loss. Hearing loss usually develops gradually and is seldom physically painful, which leads to the false impression that hearing loss “isn’t a big deal”.
Unrecognized Hearing Loss
Unfortunately, all too often age-related hearing loss that is ignored can have serious consequences. Hearing loss increases other health and quality of life risk factors significantly. Because of its onset late in life, many cases of hearing loss leave a person without effective methods to communicate (such as reading lips or sign language). Many aging people with hearing loss are still oriented primarily towards verbal communication with others, even as they struggle to comprehend and retain it.
Hearing Loss and Medical Care
Undiagnosed and untreated hearing loss both present special communication concerns when it comes to medical care. When receiving medical care and making important health decisions, it is important to have comprehensive information to make informed choices about the direction of your care and to understand risks. Despite this truth, very few hospitals and medical providers have a unified protocol for ensuring that people with hearing challenges are able to understand the care they are receiving.
Often information, questions and health updates are all delivered to the patient primarily through verbal channels. When information isn’t reiterated by another means, such as through charts or writing, key information can be lost. Without safeguard checks to make sure the patient understands the gist of the communication, misinterpretation can result.
Because hearing loss is vastly under-diagnosed and under-treated, medical providers need to conduct communication in such a way that no patient is left in the dark, regardless of how they hear. By adopting best practices that convey the same information via various communication channels, comprehension can be increased, even for those with undiagnosed hearing issues.
Another tactic for offering better medical care to older adults is through cross-checking information – asking the patient to repeat back what has been discussed. This method allows medical professionals to see where gaps in knowledge exist, and make sure that the patient proceeds with full comprehension.
Hospitals can also make use of assistive devices and technology such as interpreters, real-time captioning, and assistive amplifiers. Even if a patient’s hearing status is unknown, information should be delivered to patients in multiple formats for maximum comprehension. By making assistive services readily available, hospitals and other medical providers reduce the incidence of repeat visits.
Medical care can also play a proactive role in helping patients recognize and treat their hearing loss. Many people do not recognize their hearing problems as a serious medical issue. By screening for the signs of hearing loss, doctors can help their patients understand hearing loss better, as well as helping people recognize the benefits of treating their hearing loss.
While these techniques are important to put in place so all patients receive proper care, special attention should be given to aging patients over 65 years old. Rates of hearing loss increase significantly around this age and putting in place screening and safeguards can help older adults better adapt to their hearing health.