John M. Burkey—
Greetings from the “bad news room.” This is how a physician I worked with described my office because one of my roles as senior audiologist in our ear, nose and throat (ENT) practice is to tell patients that they have hearing loss. Since we are a busy office, a lot of bad news is usually foreseen. Perhaps surprisingly the diagnosis and amount of hearing loss are not always greeted as bad news. A lot of patients already know, or at least suspect, they have hearing loss. They know because they can’t hear.
For some the bad news is not being a candidate for surgery. One of the specialties of our medical practice is a surgery called a stapedectomy that improves or corrects hearing losses that are due to the ear disease otosclerosis. Thousands of our patients have had their hearing restored through this procedure. The catch is that it only works for individuals with this specific and relatively rare ear disease. Other ear surgeries exist to improve hearing but these are also for hearing losses that are due to specific problems. People will sometimes hear dramatic stories of a person who had their hearing restored only to be disappointed to find that the procedure won’t help them. This is another discussion that takes place in the bad news room.
Negative stereotypes about hearing loss are also bad news. While hearing loss is more common in older rather than younger folks, it can occur at any age. Unfortunately, the assumption for many is that hearing loss is a sign of aging, disability, and decline. This stereotype often prevents people seeking help because it might be an acknowledgement of not only the hearing loss but also the associated negatives. What’s more, these negatives make people hesitant to do anything that might bring their hearing loss to the awareness of others no matter how much it might help.
Hearing aids are sometimes seen as the worst bad news of all. Just the mention can bring out glimpses of fear and loathing. People do not like hearing loss, but many are sure that hearing aids must somehow be worse. Interestingly the most negative comments almost always come from people who have the least experience with hearing aids.
The biggest baddest of the bad news, however, is the everyday struggle of those who live with an uncorrected hearing loss. In a world where the ability to hear is assumed, lack of hearing is certain to affect communication, work, safety, leisure, independence, mood, and overall quality of life. And it does.
The good news—and yes there is some—is that much can be done to do away with the bad. Some hearing losses can be medically corrected or at least improved making this possibility worth investigating. If not medically correctable, there are still other options. Hearing aids are the best known, and despite some misinformation to the contrary, they are worn and recommended by the majority of those who have tried them. They are also considerably less noticeable to others than the constant misunderstanding common to those suffering hearing loss. Furthermore there are simple steps a person can take to improve listening as well as a whole variety of gadgets that can help.
Perhaps the only thing worse than the biggest baddest of the bad news would be to accept it and do nothing.
John M. Burkey is the director of audiology at the Lippy Group for ENT in Warren, Ohio, and author of The Hearing-Loss Guide: Useful Information and Advice for Patients and Families.