Every year the World Health Organisation (WHO) celebrate World Hearing day on the 3rd March. We are a bit late to the party and hoped to get a blog out on that day, but life took over, as it is often the way, and we come a week late to the party. I wonder if that really matters, though, as those of us who do have some hearing loss deal with it daily 356 days of the year.
This year the WHO theme is Hearing Care for ALL! Screen, Rehabilitate, Communicate. There are many ways we can improve our hearing loss through hearing aids, implants, sign language, etc. But I don’t know about you? I find hearing aids really uncomfortable to wear and irritating. My ears itch like crazy when I wear them. With these thoughts in mind, I tend not to wear them. My hearing loss is minor (I think). I don’t hear high pitched noises very well, and if there is a lot of background noise, I struggle to hear.
Let me take you back about four years. I would be in my late 40’s, and I worked in a Health and Life Sciences Faculty of a University. An email came through inviting staff to get their hearing tested. The audiology final year students needed people to examine for their final year exams. The students were to be tested on their audiology skills and their communication skills. I think it brilliant – my hearing isn’t great. I can get a free test and help the students out at the same time. Win. Win.
I sit in the hearing booth and wait patiently for the test to begin. If you haven’t had your hearing tested, you have to click a button every time you hear a noise, and the audiologist captures the data. Little did I know the test had started before I even started to hear the noises emitting from my headphones.
At the end of the test, the student asked me to leave the hearing booth and join her in the main room. She printed the results out and sat down with me to go through them. She asked if I had attended lots of music gigs in my time to which I replied yes. I was then told that made sense because I had hearing loss in both ears, and the pattern was consistent with listening to loud music. Great. She then handed me the report and advised me to take it to my GP, who would arrange for me to have hearing aids. WHAT!! Came out of my mouth, hearing aids????
Her Supervisor, who had been sitting around the corner out of sight, rushed around and suggested we backtrack. The Supervisor took over the conversation and suggested that in the short term, I try sitting with my back against the wall in pubs or restaurants, where possible, to eliminate background noise. She suggested I face people directly when they were talking to me. Phew. I could manage without hearing aids.
Whilst these tips did and still do help a lot, I did end up needing hearing aids. I am my own worst enemy, though and wear them so infrequently. My gran used to take hers out and hide them; I can now understand why. I am now brought back to the present time.
I was sitting in a consulting room at my local hospital to see a consultant about something else. The doctor sat across the room behind his desk, and the healthcare assistant stood behind me. I had only seen this doctor once before. He seems a nice chap, but he isn’t the best communicator. As he spoke to me, he kept looking down at his desk and continued to write in my notes. He also spoke very quietly. I could not see his face, and I certainly couldn’t hear him. I hadn’t even thought to take my hearing aids with me. STUPID of me, and I hold my hands up for that.
I had to explain my error and asked if he could speak up and look at me because I couldn’t hear what he was saying. Unfortunately, he would do this for about a sentence and then revert back to old habits. After asking him numerous times to repeat himself, I had to turn to the healthcare assistant and ask her to tell me what he was saying. I felt so uncomfortable and embarrassed. Admitting you can’t hear felt like I was accepting a failure. I came away from that consultation with a prescription, but to this day, I still have little idea about what he said to me.
More recently, my father in law went to a hospital appointment on his own and faced something more serious. He is in his late 80’s, and because of the pandemic, went into the consulting room on his own. Nick managed to hear the word cancer and would be referred to a surgeon by the name of ????? He thought he heard Dr A-Z but didn’t think that was right. After asking the doctor to repeat the name four times, Nick didn’t ask again. The young doctor looked annoyed with him and dismissive. Nick was a much better patient than me and had his hearing aids, but he still left the consultation in a similar position.
When I spoke to Nick, he just hoped he would receive a letter from the doctor with all the relevant information in it. So, he is in a position of knowing he has cancer in his hand but doesn’t know who will treat him for this or what they might do and what the implications of this are. As you can imagine, he was worried sick.
He didn’t receive a letter outlining what was wrong, but he received a letter inviting him to visit the surgeon. This doctor, in contrast, spoke clearly to him and acknowledged Nick’s hearing loss. He was respectful and took his time. When Nick had the surgery on his hand, he was awake, and the doctor explained everything to him clearly throughout the procedure.
In contrast, the nurse who sat with him called him deary and love and irritated the hell out of Nick. You could tell she had been taken off another job to sit with me, Nick said to me over the phone, and she didn’t want to be with me. I felt so overwhelmed and just wanted some peace.
Anyway, I digress slightly. By 2050 the WHO estimates that 2.5 billion people worldwide will be living with hearing loss. A third of those will need to access hearing loss services.
Those are not insignificant numbers. Governments will invest vast amounts of money worldwide in improving hearing services. But to make this investment count and reduce the social impact of those with hearing loss, we need to do so much more.
To make any communication count in healthcare, we need to recognise that hearing loss is real. If someone tells us they can’t hear, we have to alter how we communicate to ensure that we are conveying information correctly and appropriately. We have to reduce confusion, fear and feelings of isolation and uncertainty. Nick was at risk of not knowing what was wrong with him and what his care plan was likely to be. Simple communication measures could have rectified this. The doctor could have at least written the doctor’s name down for Nick, a simple step that may have reduced some of Nick’s anxiety. In my case, the doctor needed to simply look at me as he spoke and raised his voice to me.
I am telling myself this more than anyone, but if we have hearing aids we really should take ownership of our own health and wear them. A friend of mine is a GP and she told me the Care Commissioning Group were thinking of cutting NHS hearing aids because people have them and don’t use them. I am guilty as the next person for this. You might want to consider: