When the patient becomes the audiologist

By Michael Lawrence, Audiology student, De Montfort University, UK

After leaving school, it took me a while to figure out what I wanted my career to be. Despite having worn hearing aids for over 15 years, never once had becoming an audiologist crossed my mind.

That was until I met Ruth. She was the first audiologist to see me primarily as a person, not a pair of ears – the first to be truly person-centered.

After that appointment, I realized that audiology is so much more than just treating someone’s ears and sending them off. It gave me first-hand experience of the impact person-centered care (PCC) can have on a patient – I felt such relief when I could say to myself, “she gets me.”

I began to think, “why isn’t every audiologist like this?” and was motivated to try and become an audiologist like Ruth for other patients like me.

Covid-19 is the biggest obstacle

I soon realized that having a hearing loss could be very useful in becoming a person-centered audiologist. I figured a core element of this approach is being able to put yourself in the patient’s shoes, and with first-hand experience of living with a hearing loss, I believe I’m in a great position to do this. As a patient, I remember feeling so alone – I craved an audiologist with a hearing loss who’s “been there.” 

But I also had doubts about whether I’d be able to become an audiologist becauseof my hearing loss – and there have been a number of barriers. The biggest yet has been the use of face masks due to Covid-19. These masks – and the lack of clear ones – has significantly impeded my ability to lipread, something I rely on heavily to communicate.

Because of this, I haven’t been able to return to my clinical placement for more than a year and I won’t be able to qualify along with my peers until I complete this element of my course. Ironically, the very thing that brought me into audiology – my hearing loss – is also stopping me from becoming an audiologist (for the time being).

Empathy in theory and practice

But my motivation hasn’t changed. The eight weeks I did spend on placement made me realize the potential I have for offering a unique kind of empathy and understanding. The almost instant connection and trust I was able to build with some patients when they saw I wear hearing technology was the most rewarding feeling. This was the first time in my life where I saw my hearing loss as something positive rather than a source of resentment.

However, I also became aware that embracing person-centered care in practice is much easier said than done. As students we are trained how to perform diagnostic tests, fit hearing aids and impart knowledge onto the patient.

In the clinical setting, with the added pressure of a timed appointment, it was therefore easy to get caught up in “what’s wrong” with a patient as opposed to “what matters” to the patient – to forget about the patient as a whole. I was doing the very thing I’ve been critical of as a patient.

Learning for the future

To overcome this, I’ve been using the Ida Institute’s tools and resources, which have been invaluable. After completing several online courses, I feel much more confident in making my practice truly person-centered.

For example, although my hearing loss may give me a natural sense of empathy towards my patients, I have found demonstrating empathy to be quite difficult. Ida’s course on “Applying Person-Centered Care in the Appointment” has taught me how to be open to patients’ emotions, identify the variety of emotions associated with hearing loss, and express empathy.

I’ve also had time to reflect on the challenge of explaining a patient’s hearing loss in terms they understand. Here, the Ida conversation guide My Hearing Explained is very helpful. For years, audiologists would show me my audiogram and explain it with technical jargon that I didn’t understand at all or would completely forget after leaving the appointment. I found this frustrating and unsettling, particularly when my hearing loss was progressive, and it seems I’m not alone.

My Hearing Explained utilizes relatable language and analogies, which I would have appreciated as a patient, and I fully intend to integrate this tool into my future practice.

Being able to complete these courses and explore the tools from home has meant the time I’ve not been able to be on placement hasn’t gone to waste and I feel I will return as a better clinician. I look forward to what will hopefully be a long and happy career as an audiologist with hearing loss.

Image: Michael Lawrence