After Covid-19, hearing care will never be the same

By Shari Eberts

When my audiologist’s office closed at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, I was afraid. What if I lost my hearing aids or they needed repairs? What if my hearing took a dip? Should I skip the annual hearing test I had scheduled? Thankfully my audiologist was soon available via email and phone, but this was not the case everywhere. 

Without easy access to hearing care experts, people with hearing loss looked online and turned to one another for assistance, support, and innovation. We developed grit and self-reliance and grew more confident in taking control of our hearing health and asserting our needs. We found a stronger voice in the patient-provider relationship. After Covid-19, hearing care will never be the same.

Covid-19 strengthened person-centered care

The Covid-19 pandemic changed everything, seemingly overnight. Health concerns became paramount, but medical care narrowed its focus, leaving hearing care in the background. Many people with hearing loss felt isolated and alone but, like everyone else, we adapted. So did our audiologists. There was no alternative.

Disruption often breeds innovation, and this was true for Covid-19. The pandemic accelerated trends that were years in the making, such as telehealth, the rise of alternative hearing technologies, and person-centered care. 

No longer could people with hearing loss rely on their audiologists for everything. And their audiologists could not realistically fill all their patients’ needs. The flexibility and trust required during this time expanded the meaning of person-centered care (PCC), strengthening and stretching each of its main tenets.

You can read more about the four principles that comprise PCC for me in my e-book Person-Centered Care from the Patient Perspective. Below, I discuss how each expanded during the pandemic.

1. Partner with your patient

The patient/provider partnership has always been a critical component of person-centered care. Only by partnering with the patient can audiologists understand their patients' communication challenges and fine-tune their recommendations to focus on the highest priority ones. During Covid-19, this partnership became even more critical as new communication challenges emerged.

With hands-on adjustments more limited, audiologists counted on patients to carry out routine maintenance, such as changing wax guards and keeping devices clean. They listened — and trusted — as patients described their communication challenges and partnered with them to make remote adjustments that worked. 

The patient's voice took on new weight, and with it, our confidence grew, creating an improved patient/provider partnership that is likely to linger post-pandemic.

2. Make your office hearing loss friendly

Unfortunately, audiology offices are not as hearing loss friendly as they could be. Receptionists often mumble behind their desks or over the phone, making it hard for people with hearing loss to understand what they are saying. Even audiologists sometimes forget to face their patients when speaking to them. But during the pandemic, hearing loss friendliness took on increased importance.

With in-person visits disallowed, audiologists turned to telehealth and other service delivery methods. And when masks made communication more difficult, providers enthusiastically adopted clear ones and advocated for others to do the same. Let’s hope this increased awareness of communication issues remains. 

3. Embrace creativity

Audiologists can sometimes get stuck in a ‘hearing aid only’ approach to hearing care, but during the pandemic, this no longer worked. New challenges such as communicating on screens and behind face masks broadened the need for alternative technologies including speech-to-text apps. With access to experts more limited, patients turned to one another for solutions and discovered a world of communication access beyond the hearing aid.

The pandemic drove creativity in hearing aid technology as well, with manufacturers and audiologists joining forces to create mask programs for hearing aids to boost the high pitch sounds most muffled by masks and to augment remote mic technologies for these new challenges. The days of a one-size-fits-all approach to hearing technology are over.

4. Think beyond the technology

Technology is a critical part of hearing care, but non-technical strategies such as letting others know about your hearing loss and utilizing communication best practices are equally important. Small improvements in behavior alone can improve the quality of conversations for people with hearing loss. This was even more true during the pandemic, where traditional technologies were hindered by masks and social distancing.

During the pandemic, people with hearing loss learned the importance of self-identifying, with some even announcing their hearing loss through messages on their masks. Increased media coverage also helped educate the public about hearing loss and how much people affected rely on speechreading to communicate well. This bodes well for the future of communication post-pandemic too.

Will these changes stick?

Before the pandemic, people with hearing loss were already taking greater charge of our overall health and this was translating into how we thought about hearing care too. We were becoming increasingly comfortable doing research and managing our own health decisions, under the guidance of a skilled partner. 

The pandemic accelerated these trends, empowering both patients and providers to rethink standards of treatment and to partner more fully with one another to improve hearing care outcomes. Let's hope it sticks.

Shari Eberts is a hearing health advocate, writer, speaker, and avid Bikram yogi. She is the founder of Living with Hearing Loss, a blog and online community for people living with hearing loss and tinnitus. She also serves on the Board of Hearing Loss Association of America. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues. Her e-book, “Person-centered Care from the Patient’s Perspective”, details her experience living with hearing loss. She hopes the book will provide audiologists with valuable insights they can use to make their practices more person-centered. Connect with Shari: Blog, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter.