If you’ve been putting off seeing an audiologist or hearing care specialist while sheltering at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, that’s understandable. Many Americans have chosen to delay non-emergency medical care while waiting for things to improve.
At the same time, keep in mind that untreated hearing loss is not benign, and the longer you put off getting help, the more it can impact your personal well-being, health and relationships.
The good news? Many hearing care practices have been re-imagining patient care and office protocols to ensure your safety.
What to expect from your hearing care provider during the pandemic
Abundant infection control information is now available from local, state and CDC guidelines on operating a healthcare business during the pandemic. As well, major companies and organizations like Oaktree Products and the American Academy of Audiology have issued guidance and kept supplies in stock to help hearing clinics keep everyone healthy.
But how do you know if your clinic is following smart guidelines? We’ve put together a checklist to help you decide. While it will vary depending on where you live, in general these are good signs that your hearing clinic is doing its best to protect you:
- The clinic has a stated policy on how they’re protecting patients (example).
- When possible, appointments are conducted via telehealth. Depending on your state’s laws, this may include hearing tests, hearing aid adjustments and even fitting new hearing aids.
- In-person appointments are being booked with approximately 15-minute gaps to allow staff to disinfect rooms between patients.
- Patient paperwork (case history) may be sent ahead of time and you will be asked to fill out and submit via email. This is to avoid handing papers back and forth and spending time in the waiting room.
- When you arrive, a staff person screens you and for signs of infection, such as taking your temperature and asking about symptoms. Staff also are screened on a daily basis.
- The waiting room is closed or occupancy is severely restricted.
- You are ushered immediately to the hearing exam room so you can’t linger in other rooms.
- You must wear a face mask, and all staff persons wear a mask, too. Staff also wears gloves during any direct patient contact.
- Removal of masks—which may be required for patients with profound hearing loss or other communication problems—is done at a safe distance.
- Loved ones are not allowed to attend your appointment, but can participate via FaceTime or another live video platform.
- Curbside service is available for things like hearing aid repairs or battery pick-ups.
- No walk-in service is allowed for purchasing supplies—supplies are being mailed instead
- Check-out may be done via a follow-up phone call after the visit, instead of on your way out of the office.
How you can do your part for safety
As the patient, you play a big role in keeping everyone safe, too. If you don’t feel well, stay home. During in-office visits, wear a mask and follow the clinics rules accordingly. You can bring your own hand sanitizer and use it frequently, especially after you touch any shared surfaces, such as an elevator button or door rail.
Also, for telehealth appointments, expect a few technical hurdles at the beginning. It may take a few steps to set up, but generally it’s worth the time and effort it saves for everyone if you don’t need to visit the office for something relatively simple to adjust, such as a hearing aid setting. Of course, it also reduces your exposure to other people, so it’s safer, as well.
More COVID-19 resources for people with hearing loss
The new normal of hearing care
Perhaps most tantamount is that your clinic keeps communication lines open, explained Dr. Soriya Estes, AuD, co-founder of Estes Audiology Hearing Centers in Central Texas.
“We’re in a profession of communication, so during a pandemic, communication to our patients is so vital,” she said.
After her clinics closed on March 18, they added curbside services and telehealth as quickly as possible, and made sure all possible communication streams were open to patients—such as Facebook messenger and email.
As hard as the pandemic has been for business, it has had its silver linings, she said.
In the past, for example, a spouse or caretaker might have attended an appointment, which is always recommended because hearing loss has such a big impact on family members.
But now—with only the patient allowed to attend the appointment—Dr. Estes’s staff allows the patient’s friends and family members to “join in” regardless of where they live.
“We’re set up for ‘virtual family involvement’ that frankly I think needs to stay after this is all over,” she said. “We can now have the whole family involved.”