Slaying the Dragon at the Doctor’s Office

By Becky Montgomery

Hi all!

At the beginning of May, I Zoomed in to an HLAA-WA HOPE meeting.

I could rave on and on about how great these meetings are. This particular meeting, which focused on people’s experiences with getting medical care while dealing with a hearing loss, hit home for me. Normally, I’m pretty good with self-advocacy, but the doctor’s office turns me into quivering jelly.

A personal story

Last week, I went to see my doctor.

I approached the reception area where three people sat behind a tall counter, guarded by a plastic COVID screen, everyone talking at once, some even to a patient. Noise was everywhere. I prayed somebody would notice me soon, before I melted down and desperately pulled my Beyonce costume and drum set to get their attention. Thankfully, one of the receptionists finally pointed at me.

Me? I mouthed, pointing to myself. YES! My inner rock star started dancing.

I got to the counter, hoping to smoothly move on to see the doc and — guess what? — she’s wearing a mask. She said “Mmph?” then turned her face toward the computer screen.

I said, “I’m hard of hearing, can you say that again?”

She then said, “Mmph” louder.

I said, “I’m not sure what you asked.”

We looked at each other.

Finally, guessing what she needed, I gave her my name, date of birth, and the doctor’s name.

She said, “Mmph mmph.” I went on to the waiting room, anxiety beginning its familiar grip on my shoulders.

Joking aside, communicating with the staff at a medical office can be daunting. Even many so-called “help” articles actually coach hearing people on how to talk to people with hearing loss. It’s a bit odd, but the articles often mention that hard of hearing people get embarrassed about telling others that they’re hard of hearing. Embarrassed? I’m not embarrassed, I’m angry. Why don’t people simply respond better to us? It’s not rocket science, it’s just good manners to look at someone when you’re talking to them!

What’s worse is that my silly (mostly true) story of the reception desk is just the beginning. A visit to the doctor can turn into a gradual escalation of frustration and anxiety. It can leave you in tears, wondering if getting healthcare is worth the price you pay.

I’ve got good news. At the May 3, 2023, meeting of HLAA-WA’s Hearing Other Peoples’ Experience (HOPE), I heard stories that left me humbled and others that filled me with hope. One woman, who is Deaf, told a story about asking for a sign language interpreter when she made the appointment, only to arrive to find no interpreter and no offer of alternative help. Another person told us about missing an appointment entirely because she didn’t hear her name called in the waiting room. Since then, I’ve read many more similar stories: someone who, despite being traumatized by a new cancer diagnosis, struggled to write notes to an oncologist, and other people who had to schedule multiple appointments because clumsy communication takes much longer than the usual allotment of time for a single appointment.

On the bright side, I also heard success stories, such as one from two women (smart to go to the appointment together!) who asked a doctor to wear a clear face mask. To their delighted surprise, the doctor apologized and at once went to change his mask. Another person told about a provider who keeps tablet computers on hand for automatic voice-to-text transcription.

Hearing all these stories really, really helped. It isn’t just me; many of us find trying to communicate in a medical office horribly frustrating.

Here’s more good news: There are tips and strategies that can help you.

Tips for good communication at a medical office

To start, just pick one of these tips. Don’t get overwhelmed. If you’ve been doing these things for years, please feel free to add your own ideas in the comments below.

1. Think and plan ahead. When you make the appointment is the time to request captions, or an assistive listening system like a portable hearing loop, or ASL.

Imagine yourself going through the entire appointment experience.

  • At the reception desk
  • Walking back to the exam room
  • Meeting with your doctor
  • Going to a lab or imaging

And so on.

Picture yourself trying to communicate. What will it be like? What’s happening? What would help? Maybe a personal system such as a PocketTalker or a microphone that talks to your hearing aid or implant, such as a Roger device or Mini-Mic? A smartphone with a transcription app? Try to predict what you’ll need.

2. Right at the beginning of the appointment, remind the receptionist that you are hard of hearing and that you asked for communication support when you made the appointment. Ask if it was taken care of and remind them of what you need.

3. In the exam room, tell people that you are hard of hearing. They might not remember what you said, and they might not know what you want them to do. Tell them again. Repeat it as often as needed.

Ask people to:

  • Look directly at you when they speak (I tell them that I depend on lip reading).
  • Speak slowly (I tell them my hearing aids make words run together.)
  • Ask you if you understand.
  • Wear a clear mask, so you can easily see faces when people talk. If they say they don’t have any, ask them to double-check.

4. Bring a device you like to use, if you have one. For example:

  • A smartphone with an automatic transcription app installed
  • A streaming device such as a PocketTalker or an FM system
  • A microphone that connects to your aid, such as a Phonak Roger device or a mini-mic (Cochlear LTD) or its equivalent for your implant

There are dozens of free speech-to-text apps that automatically transcribe captions for you. The apps are available for Apple and Android phones and tablets, and for PC-based tablets. For example, AVA is a widely used app available for both Android and Apple phones and tablets and also offers a web version you can use in a browser. There are also dozens of others. Some are free, some charge a subscription fee. Each has its own special flavor, and you might find you like having choices, using different ones in different circumstances. Choices are a good thing. Many of these technologies are free, so download a few and give them a try.

Apple and Android phones now have transcription/caption apps built in as an Accessibility feature. To start using either, you click a few settings (search on the web for instructions, often just two or three steps). Android devices have the well-loved “Google Live Transcribe.”  Apple recently downloaded a Beta version of a transcribe app for Apple 11 and later phones called “Live Captions (Beta).”

I hope your next adventure slaying the communication dragon at the doctor’s office leaves you feeling successful. If not, remind yourself that hearing skillfully is a road with no particular end, only rest stops along the way. At least we’re all on the journey together.

Becky Montgomery writes about living with hearing loss from a very personal place – she has progressive hearing loss. She managed with hearing aids for 20-odd years but now wears bilateral cochlear implants. “When you gain a disability as an adult, it opens up whole new ways of thinking about how we do what we do; it’s a great spark for creativity. How do people who can’t see or hear experience the world differently? How can we learn from each other, and learn how to help each other?”

Becky is now retired and works hard at catching up on her reading and movie watching. In the past, she worked at Microsoft, where she was deeply involved in the company’s Employee Resource Group for Disability. For pay, she also helped to make programs like Word more accessible for people who can’t see.

3 thoughts on “Slaying the Dragon at the Doctor’s Office

  1. Sheila Burns says:

    Most of my doctors have accents. My primary doctor is wonderful, although I have to ask for repeats. I also ask for written instructions. My doctors were uncommon about wearing a clip on microphone. I’ve had entire appointments where I heard nothing. The hospital is worse!

    1. Becky Montgomery says:

      It’s an awful experience to not be able to hear or understand your doctor.
      Sometimes people who are not native speakers of English are very happy to see captions. It helps them, too.
      English is easier for them to read than to speak or hear. You can even ask them to review what your phone captured for accuracy.
      Best wishes and keep trying to find a way that works.

  2. I have started asking the medical assistant that weighs and takes my B/P to remind the doctor that I’m heard of hearing. That reminder seems to have helped.
    Recently in the hospital I took my hospital kit. Posted the sign HARD OF HEARING on the wall behind my head. Also wore my tag the said HEARING IMPAIRED on my gown so when approached me they were reminded. That worked like a charm and I missed nothing verbally.

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