Revisiting the Audiogram – or How to Communicate Hearing Loss Effectively

By Jeanette Blom

How can we help people with hearing loss and professionals understand and explain hearing loss effectively? This question was at the heart of the latest Ida Institute innovation workshop, "Understanding My Hearing," which took place on 4-5 December in Skodsborg, Denmark.

Bringing together an international group of people with hearing loss, hearing care professionals and academics, the workshop looked at the role of the audiogram in the appointment and what can be done to improve the way hearing test results are communicated.

Pros and cons of the audiogram

The audiogram is central to the professionals understanding of a person’s hearing loss. However, many people struggle to understand the meaning of the audiogram. In a recent survey conducted of people with hearing loss by the Ida Institute, respondents said that, on average, they only understood 60% of what their hearing care professional told them. They also felt they would be able to relate only 50% of what they were told to a friend or a family member.

While many hearing care professionals admit that the audiogram has its limitations in conveying important information to people with hearing loss due to its complexity, it is integral to measuring a person’s hearing status and remains to clinicians what one of the participants referred to as “the safe starting point.”

“We cannot get rid of the audiogram altogether because it plays an important role in terms of diagnostics,” Ida Institute Managing Director Lise Lotte Bundesen reminded participants at the beginning of the workshop. “Whatever we come up with has to be something that lives with the audiogram.”

While the audiogram serves a particular purpose of measuring a person’s hearing ability, it does not reflect their full hearing experience. People’s biggest concerns upon having their hearing tested revolve around what they can and cannot hear and how it will affect their lives. The challenge is therefore to create tools and methods that can improve communication between the professional and their client.

No one size fits all

There is great variation in how hearing care professionals explain the audiogram to their clients and in the level of detail that they choose to provide. “There doesn’t seem to be any consistency in the way each audiologist explains the audiogram,” said one of the participant.

This also reflects the fact that people’s information needs are very different. While some may understand and appreciate the information that the audiogram provides, it has no value for others. In addition, people’s information needs change over time. 

There was a general consensus among participants that no one size fits all, and one of the challenges is therefore to create resources that can accommodate for different information needs and be adapted to the individual.

Making sense of hearing loss

The participants also discussed what terminology to use and how to provide context that can help people with hearing loss make sense of the data.

“We are very careful about our language when communicating with clients, but it still seems to get in the way. Sometimes even the term audiogram can be a real obstacle,” said one of the hearing care professionals at the workshop.

Beyond the challenge of choosing the right words to describe hearing loss, the participants argued that hearing care professionals must shift their focus from communication difficulty to communication ability. “We tend to focus is on what is lost versus what people still have. We need to emphasize strength rather than loss,” one of the participants argued.

Looking at the bigger picture

The participants also talked about how to help people with hearing loss navigate the appointment and improve the overall client experience. The need to help people with hearing loss prepare for appointments and to provide them with information to take home with them was a recurrent theme. 

“Give your clients resources for after they leave your office,” one of the participant suggested. “Most people are going to need time to process the information you give them.”

“I never realized that the audiogram belonged to me because I’ve never been given a copy of one,” said a workshop participant with hearing loss, illustrating that the road towards better hearing can be bumpy, and that the audiogram also needs to be considered as part of the overall patient journey.

With all of this in mind, participants worked in groups to create new resources that would give people with hearing loss a more visual representation of their hearing status, visual depictions of what to expect during their first hearing care appointment, and methods to organize information so that it is available to them as it becomes relevant.

The participants came up with a number of concrete suggestions for resources that can help hearing care professionals communicate more efficiently with their clients and facilitate a better understanding of hearing test results. Ida will continue to work with these concepts and ideas to develop new tools and resources in the new year.