Communicating with Patients with Hearing Loss

By Barbara Culley

14 November 2018

Practical Analytic Approaches to Healthcare Challenges

Poor compliance with healthcare provider advice for health and wellness actions is a growing issue. For older patients, hearing loss may contribute to lack of adherence with provider guidance.

The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2035, there will be 78 million people who are age 65 and older.[i] Research[ii] shows that nearly half of those 65 years of age and over have hearing loss, with age as the greatest predictor of hearing loss for adults between 20 and 69 years of age.[iii] Of these, about a third have significant hearing loss. However, most people over age 60 do not receive testing for hearing loss.[iv]

Hearing loss negatively impacts multiple aspects of patients’ lives by creating communication barriers. A University of Manchester study[v] showed that people with hearing loss understand about 21 percent of speech. Use of either a hearing aid or speechreading[1] results in comprehension increasing to 64 percent. If both of these aids are used, comprehension increases to 90 percent; however, less than 30 percent of those 70 and older who could benefit from a hearing aid use them.[vi] Given the significant increase in understanding by use of hearing aids, why do people avoid the use of this readily accessible tool?

Aging is often stigmatized in U.S. culture, which can contribute to avoidance of addressing common physical deficits of aging, including hearing loss. Hearing aids can be perceived as an outward, visible sign of aging and impairment. Johns Hopkins research shows the average adult waits 15 years to address hearing loss.[vii] Additionally, assistive devices are expensive, not covered by most insurances, and can be seen as a low priority expense for those on a fixed income. These factors contribute to patients not using hearing aids and thereby not understanding what their provider is communicating in the office visit. Other negative impacts to health include a link between hearing loss and increased falls, physical and cognitive decline, brain shrinkage, and increased risk of dementia.[viii]

Once impaired hearing has been identified and where providers are part of a larger integrated health system or practice, a patient Electronic Medical Record or database and tools may be available to provide reporting that identifies patients with hearing loss or risk factors for impaired hearing. Desktop applications or manual processes are alternative options, although less efficient. Examples of data that can be informative include patient age, history of environmental exposure to loud noise, or existing sensory deficits. Once identified, this information can generate alerts for regular hearing screening.

Alerting practice staff with a chart or system flag for patients with a hearing deficit or risk factors can provide the opportunity for advanced planning for office visits. For example, preparing written materials for those with hearing loss with a larger font can be useful for those with hearing loss and vision deficits as well. Content might include topics such as:

  • May I see your insurance information and picture identification?
  • Do you need a sign language interpreter?
  • Please have a seat and we will let you know when your provider is ready to see you.
  • Training staff on effective communication techniques for those with sensory deficits can be very helpful for both patient and staff. Approaches include directly facing the person, speaking clearly and a bit more slowly than usual, minimizing background noise, and providing written materials, such as a summary of the treatment plan written at a literacy level appropriate for broad comprehension. Small whiteboards can be helpful to augment communication for both the provider and the hard-of-hearing patient.

    By using patient data for proactive identification, the patient visit can result in comprehension of the recommended plan of care and actions by use of planned techniques to address hearing communication barriers.

    [1] Speechreading is defined as the act or process of determining the intended meaning of a speaker by utilizing all visual clues accompanying speech attempts, as lip movements, facial expressions, and bodily gestures, used especially by people with impaired hearing. Source: https:// Accessed 10/17/2018.

    [i]United States Census Bureau. (March 13, 2018). Older People Projected to Outnumber Children for the First Time in U.S. History. Retrieved on 5/28/2018 from

    [ii]StratisHealth. (September 2011). Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Minnesotans. Retrieved on 5/9/2018 from

    [iii]National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders. (December 15, 2016). Quick Statistics About Hearing. Retrieved on 5/25/2018 from

    [iv]StratisHealth. Ibid.

    [v]StratisHealth. Ibid.

    [vi]National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders. Ibid.

    [vii] Minnesota Commission of Deaf, Deafblind and Hard of Hearing Minnesotans. (December 14, 2017). First-of-its-Kind Pilot Program Aims to Increase Awareness of Hearing Loss Among Older Minnesotans. Retrieved on 5/9/2018 from

    [viii]Johns Hopkins Medicine. (January 22, 2014). Hearing Loss Linked to Accelerated Brain Tissue Loss. Retrieved on 5/25/2018 from

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