The COVID-19 pandemic has taken the world by storm and literally changed the face of healthcare.
Medical staff such as clinicians and nurses, as well as patients, are all required to wear face masks to prevent spreading the deadly and contagious coronavirus disease. Wearing masks is challenging for everyone, but it’s particularly difficult for people with hearing loss as it undermines speech communication.
Effective patient-clinician communication is important in delivering high-quality care and achieving desired health outcomes. So, let’s take a look at the challenges of wearing face masks and the solutions for the hearing impaired.
Challenges of wearing face masks
According to an article published in The BMJ, face masks pose challenges for people with hearing loss in medical settings. For example, when patients and medical staff wear face masks, those who are hearing impaired can’t see the other person’s lip movements and facial expressions, which are important for clear communication. Face masks also muffle high-frequency sounds that are crucial for speech understanding.
Patients and healthcare workers who are members of the deaf community face the greatest challenges with face masks, as they use sign language that requires reading someone’s lips and facial expressions.
What’s more, healthcare settings such as emergency departments and hospital wards are often noisy with staff and patients talking or medical equipment beeping, so people with hearing difficulties may have trouble following conversations. This could lead to poor health outcomes for patients which question the accessibility of businesses and the healthcare industry.
Solutions for the hearing impaired
Face masks interfere with hearing, but the good news is that there are solutions for hearing impaired patients and medical staff. And they should be adopted as good health outcomes depend on clear communication, especially during a lethal pandemic. Here’s a look at what they are:
- Awareness: Be mindful that some people will struggle to understand someone speaking through a face mask. Also be aware of the fact that many older people have a hearing impairment, with more than two-thirds of seniors over 70 having significant hearing loss.
- Basic steps: Face the person, get their attention first, then speak slowly while raising your voice slightly, and check if they understand you. If they don’t respond or they give an inappropriate response, this could be a sign of hearing loss.
- Low tech aids: Use whiteboards or yellow pads to write on so that hearing-impaired people can read what you’re trying to tell them. This ensures there are no misunderstandings or miscommunication between the two of you.
- Hearing devices: There are several treatment options available for people with hearing impairment. Apart from the standard removable hearing aids, there are also state-of-the-art surgically implanted devices such as cochlear implants and bone-anchored hearing aids. These devices can significantly improve hearing in both quiet and noisy situations.
- Smartphones and tablets: They provide apps with real-time speech-to-text transcription. Many of them run with remarkable speed and accuracy, so some tech-savvy deaf people use them. Health facilities may be legally required to provide speech-to-text transcription for people who need it.
- Personal amplifier: It has a microphone and an amplifier that feeds the speaker’s voice directly into the listener’s ears through wired headphones or earbuds. Personal amplifiers can be customized with simple volume and tuning controls, and cost around $60 to $200.
- Face masks with clear windows: These allow someone with hearing difficulties to see and read the other person’s lips and facial expressions. However, there are few manufacturers, low supplies, and regulatory barriers to the use of clear masks in medical settings. So, hearing impaired people and those in the deaf community are making their own clear masks.
- Virtual consultations: Health consultations delivered through online platforms allow both the patient and clinician to not wear face masks. But many people with hearing impairment need speech-to-text captioning to understand what the other person is saying. Platforms like Google Meet and Microsoft Teams offer high-quality, real-time speech-to-text captioning for free.
- Remote (video) sign language interpretation services: This should be provided for patients and healthcare workers who use sign language and/or belong to the deaf community. On the other hand, if this service can’t be provided, then patients, staff, and interpreters should be allowed to remove their masks when communicating with each other.
Ensuring clear communication in healthcare
The coronavirus disease has yet to disappear, so face masks are likely to stay in healthcare settings until vaccines are rolled out. This is problematic for older adults as they have a higher risk of contracting the disease due to their weaker immune systems and many of them also have hearing loss. If they get COVID-19 and need to wear face masks, it could result in poor communication between them and their healthcare provider. The only way to ensure clear patient-clinician communication and good health outcomes is by adopting the strategies discussed here for the hearing impaired.