How Doctors Speak About Hearing Loss and Hearing Aids Matters

Confronting hearing loss can be a challenging moment in your life. When navigating this journey, there is one factor that’s receiving more attention recently: How one’s healthcare provider approaches and explains hearing loss and hearing aids. This is actually quite an important force – one that’s worth a closer look – as it impacts the kind of care and support you get.

Is your healthcare provider a good listener?

Consider what Jane Erickson, who lives in New Mexico, experienced asked her primary-care doctor about hearing aids around eight years ago. When she brought up the idea that she thought she needed them, her doctor seemed skeptical.

He did agree to refer her to an audiologist, who told Erickson that she was right. She was experiencing age-related hearing loss in her 60s, and she did need hearing aids. Fortunately, she hadn’t been deterred by her doctor’s initial lack of support.

Her experience underscores an important aspect of hearing health – not all healthcare providers are quick to engage with their patients about hearing-loss concerns. Or they may not do so in a way that makes their patient comfortable.

“I really felt I couldn't hear well, and the hearing test was free,” Erickson told HearingTracker of her decision to get tested. “My mom was hard of hearing, and I didn't want to be in denial like she was.”

Why addressing hearing loss is so important

Poor communication about hearing loss can have a major impact. Around 25 percent of adults over the age of 60 experience hearing loss greater than 35 decibels, according to the World Health Organization. This would suggest that Erickson’s experience with age-related hearing loss is quite common.

“Hearing loss goes beyond the ears and can have substantial impacts to one’s emotional, physical, and cognitive health,” said Shannon Basham, AuD, manager of audiology and education at Sonova. Research also indicates that untreated hearing loss is associated with dementia.

While the prevalence of hearing loss increases with age, people of all ages experience the problem and may benefit from hearing aids. This is all the more reason why people like Erickson, who are noticing the signs of hearing loss, should get checked.

“Physicians can promote hearing health by encouraging patients to have their hearing checked on a regular basis by a licensed hearing healthcare provider and supporting their recommendations,” said Virginia Ramachandran, AuD, PhD, Head of Audiology at Oticon Inc., in an interview with HearingTracker.

Is there a right way to talk about hearing loss?

Interestingly, the language that healthcare professionals use to discuss hearing loss also matters; it’s not enough just to broach the topic. An October 2021 study published in Health and Social Care took a closer look at this. For the research, 209 volunteers in Italy ages 19 to 60 answered questions about how they feel about hearing loss and wearing hearing aids based on reading different ways that a family doctor might speak about it the topic.

Doctor Discussing Hearing Loss

When discussing hearing loss, patients prefer for the discussion to frame things in everyday language and commonplace situations.

The study found that, when discussing hearing loss, patients prefer for the discussion to frame things in everyday language and commonplace situations. For example, a person is more likely to respond well to information about how hearing loss may interfere with their personal relationships rather than sharing the technical details of what causes the deficit. When it comes to talking about hearing aids, however, respondents said they preferred it when doctors used more medical language.

“It stands to reason that language that causes a patient to feel negatively about hearing loss [and its impact on daily life] would also motivate them to seek out treatment,” Basham said after reviewing the study. “What is super interesting to me is that the results of this study could encourage hearing healthcare professionals to aim toward a blended approach to language.”

One audiologist told HearingTracker that the study raised concerns because it excluded a vital age group. “What surprises me about this study is that older adults, age 70 and above, who comprise the majority of hearing-aid users, weren't included in this study,” noted Marianne Cramer, AuD, the head audiologist at Audicus.

Opening up communication about hearing loss

Though the recent study may not cover all possible angles, there’s no doubt that doctor-patient conversation about hearing loss is vital. For many people, primary-care and family doctors are a critical first step they are the practitioners who are confided in when hearing becomes difficult.

Laura Pratesi, Au.D., CCC-A, F-AAA, an audiologist who is hard-of-hearing, believes that primary-care doctors can be the gatekeepers who help patients recognize the importance of hearing healthcare. “Patients will likely see their primary-care physicians more frequently than any of their specialists or other doctors,” Pratesi said. “Their job is to prevent disease, identify risk factors, and improve overall quality of life.”

As part of that role, Pratesi believes a positive outlook plays an important role when medical professionals talk to their patients about hearing. “I've had patients come to my office in despair because they've been told by primary-care physicians that there's nothing that can be done about tinnitus or that hearing aids won't help their hearing loss,” Pratesi said. “I remind them, there's no ‘cure’ for diabetes either, but there are definitely things we can do to manage these conditions and improve quality of life!”