Otologist John Dornhoffer, MD, was diagnosed with a hereditary form of hearing loss at the age of 5. Although it is difficult for him to understand speech and hear higher tones, his condition most certainly has not affected his long and distinguished medical career. Dr. Dornhoffer, who is professor, vice chair of adult services, director of otology and neurotology, and the Samuel D. McGill, Jr., Chair in Otolaryngology Research in the department of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at the University of Arkansas and Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock, has used a variety of high- and low-tech methods to accommodate his condition.
Explore this issue:May 2015
“Back during my early practice, all pagers beeped, which I couldn’t hear well,” he said. “I would set the pager to vibrate, set it in a brass bowl full of pennies, and place the whole thing on a glass-top table—it would really make a racket. You end up figuring out ways to get by, although it wasn’t always easy,” he added. “I have had a few medical students who have hearing issues come stay with me, and we discuss what it is like being in the medical profession today.”
Although some challenges remain, technological advances in communication devices and time-tested strategies for practice have made all medical specialties increasingly accessible to physicians who are deaf or hard of hearing (DHoH).
A common challenge for these physicians is maintaining clear communication. “The tools available to us are light years beyond what was available in the 1980s and 1990s,” said Christopher Moreland, MD, clinical assistant professor and associate program director for the internal medicine residency program in the division of hospital medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
“The real challenge is how to determine the most appropriate interfaces for communication with patients and colleagues that fit with what we need,” said Dr. Moreland. “For instance, communication needs for working at a hospital are different than those for working at a clinic and can range from the right telephone system to use, to the best environment for hearing, to whether or not an interpreter is needed.”
Environment can make a difference. Dr. Dornhoffer has moved away from the traditional practice of discussing rounds with residents in stairwells. Although the environment is away from other patients and physicians, echoes in the tight space can play havoc with hearing.
The advent of electronic communications technology, including speech-to-text, instant messaging, electronic media, and electronic medical records, works to the advantage of DHoH physicians. “Although we have had video relay services for quite a while [the equivalent of Skyping through an interpreter],” said Dr. Moreland, who regularly uses an interpreter, “devices like the Apple watch and iPads are becoming more prevalent in everyday use in the healthcare system.”