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Listening devices help preserve confidentiality in hospitals for hearing-impaired patients

March 23, 2011

Judy Holmes
(315) 443-8085

It’s against the law to share a person’s medical information with others without written consent. However, it’s almost impossible to prevent outsiders from overhearing private conversations in hospital rooms between doctors and hearing-impaired patients. It’s an all-too-common situation that a team of researchers from Syracuse University and SUNY Upstate Medical University are working to resolve.

The researchers recently concluded a yearlong study at SUNY Upstate in which hearing-impaired older patients—most of whom did not wear hearing aids—were taught to use assistive listening devices (ALD) during their hospital stay. ALDs look much like a miniature Walkman, with a small microphone to amplify sound. Headsets are connected to the device. The researchers found that the devices were highly effective in enabling patients to better understand and converse with their health care providers while maintaining confidentiality.

The study, which was funded by the Capita Foundation, was conducted by Karen Doherty, professor of audiology in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD) in SU’s College of Arts and Sciences, and Sharon Brangman, chief of geriatric medicine at SUNY Upstate. Doherty and her colleagues will present the findings at AudiologyNOW, the annual convention of the American Academy of Audiology in Chicago, April 6-9.

“Hospitals are noisy,” Doherty says. “It’s very difficult for people with moderate hearing loss to screen out background noise and have effective conversations with their providers. We found that these simple-to-use devices can help.”

After 60 years of age, one out of three adults experience some degree of hearing loss and approximately 50 percent of adults over the age of 75 have significant hearing loss. To be in control of their health care, it’s important, researchers say, that older adults be able to accurately hear what their providers tell them about medical tests, diagnoses and treatment options.

Brangman believes this is the first time any area hospital has focused on this specific issue and formally investigated a way to resolve it. “Once we finish reviewing the data, I plan to discuss the study with hospital administrators at Upstate to see if we could implement a process for addressing hearing needs of older patients admitted to the hospital,” says Brangman, who is also president of the American Geriatrics Society.

Study participants were selected from a pool of people 60 years and older. Interested candidates underwent a five-minute, bedside hearing evaluation to determine their degree and type of hearing loss. Of the 50 patients who participated in the study, the majority had a moderate hearing loss and average age of 76. Most did not wear hearing aids; those who did were often instructed by hospital staff to leave their devices at home to prevent them from getting lost.

Doherty and two audiology doctoral students, Caithlin MacNeil and Elizabeth Fasulo, taught the participants to use the ALDs and returned each day to question patients about their usage of the device and perceived benefits, as well as ensure they were using the device correctly. Ninety-seven percent of the participants reported that they found the ALDs helpful and easy to use.

One interesting finding was that patients were more likely to use the device when speaking with family members than with their doctors. The reason, patients reported, was that their doctors came in early in the morning and spoke and left too quickly for patients to have time to retrieve the device and put it on. Another curious finding was that some medical staff continued to talk loudly to patients who were using the ALDs, primarily because the staff was not familiar with how the device worked.

“These are issues that could be resolved with signage at the bed side to alert medical staff as to which of their patients were using ALDs and how the devices work,” Doherty says. “Doctors could then encourage patients to put on the headphones and proceed to have successful, quiet conversations.”

In addition to signage, Doherty says there are several logistical and cost issues that need to be resolved before ALDs could be put into widespread use in hospitals. She and Brangman plan to seek opportunities to broaden the study to find effective solutions for the outstanding issues.

“It was a fascinating study,” Doherty says. “But it was really only a first step. There is more work to be done.”

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