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Dr. Jodi Little is a native of Colorado. She has over 20 years of audiology experience serving both pediatric and adult patients in clinical and educational settings.
How to Develop a Deeper Understanding of Your Audiology Patient
To truly be successful as an audiologist, one must develop a deep understanding of each patient’s unique personality, lifestyle and communication needs. Doctor-patient relationships can be complicated in any medically based practice. The audiology practice is no different and the importance of building a trusted relationship based on open two-way communication is critical. Open communication is critical not only in the initial diagnostic phase of the evaluation, but also in moving the patient toward an appropriate treatment plan. Developing good rapport with a relationship built on trust, asking the right questions, involving family members and really listening will ensure the highest level of care. This will bring patients back year after year and ensure the highest compliment is received - word of mouth referrals from the audiologist’s current patients.
I will always remember the first time I met Mr. Elliott. I’ve changed his name to protect his privacy, but every audiologist has a “Mr. Elliott” story. Mr. Elliott came into the audiology clinic at the urging of his wife. He was convinced that his hearing was fine and that the only real problem was that his wife (and other family members) “mumbled” and that there was “too much noise” in his workplace. As I worked through the initial case history, I began to unfold a little more truth about Mr. Elliott. Mr. Elliott had an extreme misconception about amplification that made him believe that only weak elderly people wore hearing devices and that someone of his stature couldn’t possibly be accepted in the workplace if he required “assistance” of any kind. Although meeting Mr. Elliott for the first time was a bit of a challenge, I knew that the most important thing I could do, was to develop rapport and a level of trust that would allow me to probe deeper into his misconceptions and ultimately allow him to experience a treatment plan that would empower him instead of inhibit him.
Developing good rapport from the moment the audiologist first sits down with a new patient will be critical in how the relationship develops. A strong connection initially will allow the audiologist into the patient’s inner circle of trust where true communication solutions can be explored. Looking your patient in the eye with a firm handshake and a friendly introduction will go a long way in showing your patient that you care about them as an individual and that you have the skill and confidence needed to provide excellent hearing health care. Taking the time to have an unhurried dialogue will allow you to connect with your patient in a way that shows you are interested in their daily life and any breakdowns in communication that may be occurring. The audiologist is a unique professional in that to truly make a difference in the patient’s life, you have to understand the patient’s lifestyle and communication challenges. If your patient is only there because a family member urged them to come, it may be necessary to probe further to determine how important the communication interactions are to the patient or if they, like Mr. Elliott, have a misconception about what hearing loss is and how it impacts their daily life. The patient has to trust not only the audiologist’s ability to make an accurate diagnosis, but also the ability to recommend a treatment plan that matches his/her personal, financial and communication goals.
Asking the right questions will be key for the audiologist to pinpoint areas of need and specific communication goals that should be addressed early on in the appointment. The case history is an important tool in getting to know your patient and understanding any communication barriers that may be making life difficult. Asking open-ended questions will provide more information than a simple yes/no question will provide. Audiologists need to realize that it’s ok to have pauses and even moments of silence in interactions with patients. The audiology patient may need time to process some of the more personal and pointed questions. Always allow adequate wait time for a response before jumping in. This can be difficult for many audiologists, but keep working at it. These moments of quiet can be life changing for all involved, as they require self-reflection and eventually a commitment to action.
Work to obtain third party involvement if at all possible. Sometimes asking the patient’s family: spouse, children, friend or care-taker can help you gain insight into how to best approach your patient’s communication needs. Mr. Elliott wasn’t aware that his wife was feeling quite disconnected in her relationship with her husband. When I turned to her during the appointment and asked her to explain a daily interaction that her husband had brought up, it was clear that Mr. Elliott was observing the disconnect for the first time. Mrs. Elliott explained that although her husband had always been very attentive, she was finding that he misunderstood her more and more frequently and to the point that she had stopped sharing the details of her daily life as she was becoming increasingly frustrated in the interactions. She shared very personal feelings of embarrassment over misheard words at dinner parties and family functions through the years. Although this conversation was difficult to have in a clinical environment, it proved to be valuable for Mr. Elliott’s understanding of the impact his hearing loss was having on his most valued relationship, his marriage.
One of the most important skills an audiologist can learn is the art of listening. This is a skill that can take time to develop. Audiologists spend a lot of time in school learning how to take a proper “Case History”. We learn which questions are important to ask in order to ensure that a proper diagnostic test battery is completed and to make sure that we don’t miss any imperative information that would be important in making an accurate diagnosis. We learn how to ask the right questions and to probe our patients for more information related to their general hearing health. What we don’t learn is how to listen. How to really listen. The kind of listening where you might have to ask 3 unplanned questions to get to the bottom of what’s really going on, or where you might have to take a step back and simply ask the patient to “tell you more” in order to learn and understand their inner thinking. The kind of listening and verbal turn taking that occurs with your eyes or a nod of your head in understanding. The kind of listening that sets you apart as the hearing healthcare provider that is going to make a difference by connecting in the most personal arenas of the patient’s life.
Once the diagnosis and treatment options are discussed, it’s time to act! Taking action is what differentiates you from all of the other audiologists or audiology technicians that your patient has seen previously and/or are available in your market region. The sooner you can move from the evaluation process to the treatment phase, the better. If your patient can experience the sound enhancement and features you are telling them about, they will be able to make a personal judgment on the real life benefits that the technology you are recommending can offer. A successful audiologist will utilize technology during the initial encounter with a new patient. Demo, demo, demo! Let patients hear, feel, touch and see for themselves the difference your treatment recommendation can make for them.
Maintaining the relationship will ensure that your patient returns to you year after year. Take a genuine interest in your patient’s life. You will be surprised at how much this increases the audiologist’s overall job satisfaction! Remember birthdays, anniversaries and to ask how your patient how his/her grandson’s last baseball game went. Was he able to hear his client at the big meeting he attended last month? How have things been at church or synagogue? Is hearing over the telephone going any better since the last adjustment? What about listening to the television or a movie? How else can you, as the audiologist, improve your patient’s communication experiences?
Recognizing your patient’s expectations and providing ongoing counseling and support of realistic goals for treatment will ensure that your patient’s everyday communication and lifestyle is improved and the best possible outcome is achieved. Always remember that patients have a choice when it comes to selecting their hearing healthcare provider. By developing a deeper understanding of your audiology patient and his/her unique communication needs, the audiologist can ensure patients will continue to trust in the expertise provided and will return for continuation of care year after year.
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More about the author: Dr. Little enjoys all phases of the diagnostic and rehabilitative process and thrives on helping her patients find unique solutions to communication challenges. Dr. Little is passionate about hearing conservation and is a sought after speaker on the topic of hearing loss in the dental field. Dr. Little completed a Master of Science from Portland State University in 1994 and a clinical doctorate in Audiology from the Arizona School of Health Sciences in 2002. Outside of work, Dr. Little enjoys playing tennis and spending time with her husband, children and extended family.