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Hearing Loss Is Challenging at the Doctor's Office

Personal Perspective: The medical assistance that the hearing-impaired require.

Key points

  • Hearing loss can be challenging in a medical setting, even if you are not the patient.
  • Self-identifying as a person with hearing loss helps you get the communication assistance that you require.
  • Hearing loss is invisible, as are many chronic conditions. Compassion is key to a successful medical visit.

Heading to the doctor with hearing loss can be challenging. Because hearing loss is invisible, medical professionals may not know we are having trouble hearing them. It is up to us to self-identify as a person with hearing loss, so we can get the communication assistance that we need. But what if the appointment is for a loved one with typical hearing? The same rules apply—but they may be harder to remember. A pandemic-era trip to the doctor with my son demonstrates the challenges that can exist, even when the patient hears just fine.

JESHOOTS on Unsplash
Source: JESHOOTS on Unsplash

Masks and Face Shields Are a Tough Combination

With masks on, there was little opportunity for conversation in the waiting area, but we waited calmly until the nurse approached us. She was wearing a surgical mask AND a face shield, and she spoke very quietly. “Mumble mumble,” she asked me, holding a clipboard in her hand. “Mumble, mumble mumble,” she continued. I glanced over at my son for help, but his attention was somewhere deep in his phone. “I can’t understand what you are saying,” I replied with a smile hidden behind my mask, yet a feeling of rising panic. “Has he been here before?” she asked in what must have been a much louder voice since my son’s head popped to attention. I answered the question and we were left again to wait.

But this time, I was not feeling calm. My heart was pounding in my chest. I wondered if this had all been a big mistake. I leaned over to my son and said, “You are going to need to pay attention because I can’t hear anything.” I ran through my hearing loss at the doctor tips in my mind and saw I had already missed step one. Because the appointment was for my hearing son, I had not alerted the office in advance about my hearing loss. I found my phone and activated a speech-to-text app so I would have captioning assistance. Then I took some deep breaths to calm myself down. I was ready.

The rest of the appointment went smoothly. I was lucky that the doctor had an easy voice for me to hear and only one layer of protective gear — a surgical mask. Surgical masks block speech reading cues, but the sound degradation is relatively small at only 5 decibels. My hearing aids worked well in the quiet exam room, especially with my son and speech-to-text app for backup. Even so, I repeated everything the doctor said to make sure I had it right and asked for all the medication details in writing — including dosages and frequencies.

Invisible Disabilities Are Hard to Detect — Compassion Is Key

Checking out with the mumbling receptionist was more challenging, but I knew the drill and handed over my credit card. Our next adventure — heading to the pharmacy to pick up the prescriptions was much easier since almost everything could be done via the pharmacy’s app.

On the walk home, my son and I talked about how difficult the appointment had been. We realized that hearing loss is invisible, but so are many other chronic conditions. People don’t always know we are struggling just by looking at us. Conversely, we cannot always see the difficulties others are facing. Compassion is key.

Copyright: Living With Hearing Loss/Shari Eberts. Reprinted with permission.

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