Elderly woman holding hand with younger woman

Addressing Hearing Loss May Improve Care of Older Adults

Hospital care for older patients can be complex for various reasons, but one thing that’s been pointed out in medical literature recently is the difficulty posed by hearing loss. Effective medical treatment can be difficult or impossible when the patient has untreated hearing loss. Even more than we might guess, medical care relies on the dialogue between the patient, nurses, and doctors.

A study conducted at the New York University in New York City discovered that patients with hearing loss are 32% more likely to be readmitted within one month of being discharged from the hospital. Considering that people with hearing loss are more likely to be admitted in the first place, this accounts for a lot of hospitalization that might be preventable with treatment for hearing loss.

Social Isolation and Hearing Loss in the Hospital

Hearing loss, primarily undiagnosed and untreated, leads to adverse health outcomes. Hearing loss can cause miscommunication with nursing home staff, leading to erroneous assumptions about dementia. Social isolation is a common one. 

As hearing loss progresses and the auditory cortex in the brain begins to atrophy, a patient with hearing loss who is generally socially isolated might be unable to understand speech even when they hear it.

Miscommunication

The most likely reason for the inconsistent treatment of patients with hearing loss is miscommunication. Patients undergoing emergency room treatment are often disoriented by their acute medical condition or anesthetics. The hospital environment is also likely to be noisier than the patient encounters with regularity, and miscommunications due to hearing loss are exacerbated by background noise. One way miscommunication could be avoided by placing patients who have hearing loss or are suspected of having undiagnosed hearing loss in quieter environments for consultation.

Sometimes hospital staff resort to shouting when they have difficulty making themselves understood by patients with hearing loss. Unfortunately, this usually does not increase the likelihood that they will be understood; shouting will more often distort speech than make it clearer. It might also violate HIPAA privacy regulations.

Recording Previously Undiagnosed Hearing Loss

To help with the problem of diagnosing hearing loss, patients’ medical records can be tagged with an obvious indicator that the patient has demonstrated hearing difficulty when interfacing with medical professionals in the past. This avoids the problem of having to rediscover on each visit that a patient has hearing loss.

Communicating with Patients with Hearing Loss

The best way to communicate, un-aided, to a person with hearing loss is to speak a little more slowly—not drawing out your words but adding more space between them—and a little more loudly. 

Make sure they can see your face. If they ask you to repeat something, try saying it in different words rather than repeating the same thing.

Patients with age-related hearing loss, who were comfortable in hearing culture for most of their lives, rarely know sign language, so sign language interpreters who are on staff to communicate with the deaf will not get far with a patient who has age-related hearing loss.

FM Devices are a good option

Hospitals should keep FM devices at the ready. Unfortunately, this is not currently a common practice. If a patient is having trouble communicating, an FM device, which will make the sound of medical staff’s voices louder, could be enough to improve their outcome. Many patients will not be familiar with this technology, so hospital staff must explain it to them.

Most patients who arrive in the emergency room with pre-existing, undiagnosed hearing loss are from lower-income brackets. It could be very significant for them to discover that their hearing loss can be treated with an FM device, though hearing aids may, unfortunately, be out of reach for them financially.

Treating Hearing Loss with Hearing Aids

Of course, hearing aids are one of the best ways for people with hearing loss to spend as little time in the hospital as possible and to get the most out of their treatment when they are there. 

Education about the importance of hearing aids to general health and well-being should be more prevalent. Still, in the meantime, medical staff should make the most of every encounter and encourage patients to get their hearing tested regularly.

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