COUNSELLING THE WELL-INFORMED PATIENT

The number of well-researched patients has been growing lately. Learn why they can either be your biggest nightmare or your best friend.
New York-based audiologist Dr. Ellen Finkelstein sees a range of clients walk through the door of East Side Audiology. Some barely know how to use a hearing aid and others have done so much research that you would think they have a degree in audiology. This crop of well-researched clients has been growing lately, Finkelstein says, and according to her, “they can be your biggest nightmare or your best friend.

Digital diagnosis has been made easier with the onset of smartphones that allow people to carry a medical encyclopedia in their pocket. For hearing health, a few clicks can get you sites selling cheap hearing aids, horror stories about leaking batteries, and a hearing aid hacking how-to. While a good dose of information is good for the client, sometimes clients ignore the audiologist’s advice in lieu of faulty online information.
The Internet as your partner
Finkelstein says that clients are increasingly going online or having their children research for them. The observation matches an overall trend. A 2002 study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project showed that 66 percent of internet users searching for health information online were searching for information about a specific disease or problem, like hearing loss. Issues involving retirees are especially prevalent, with 12 percent searching for long-term care for an elderly person and 17 percent looking up information about memory loss or Alzheimer ’s disease.

Fifteen years ago, hearing professionals were the only source of information for those needing hearing aids. The trust and value of their knowledge was paramount. Now, with thousands of information sources just a click away, hearing professionals could play second fiddle to the internet.
The beauty of the internet is that clients can get help irrespective of where they are or the audiologist is. They don’t have to hire anyone and can look at information in the privacy of their own home
- Juliëtte Sterkens, president of Fox Valley Hearing Center
Audiologists should think of the internet as a partner, rather than an enemy, says Audiologist Juliëtte Sterkens, the president of Wisconsin-based Fox Valley Hearing Center. Searching online can be a great way to learn about products and become more comfortable with the idea of wearing a hearing aid.
Becoming a salesperson
Finkelstein agrees that well-researched clients are the best. But while the research is well-intended, patients are sometimes led astray by online retailers who promise hearing aids and batteries for a bargain price. Clients come in expecting a similar low price from her.

“You get the person who wants to know what they are getting for their money and what differentiates me from everyone else,” she says. “I’ve become a little more of a salesperson having to explain why they want to work with me.”

Part of that salesperson role involves marketing herself online via her website and Twitter. Finkelstein says that having an online presence not only helps people to find her business, but also helps her to communicate with clients via email and social media. This way she can better understand her clients and they can better understand how she works.

“I’ve been forced to reinvent myself,” she says. “You build your trust when you show your patient that you respect that they are coming in as a knowledgeable customer.”
Honest communication
Finkelstein says that a problem comes when clients insist that their online information is more accurate than her knowledge. Some insist on a tiny in-ear hearing aid when their loss is too substantial for it to work. Others want to buy cheap batteries from big box stores.

“I always respect what the patient wants, but if I feel that whatever they are asking for is unreasonable or isn’t going to work for them, then I won’t do it,” she says.

Honesty is also the best policy for Sterkens, who says that it is important for patients to understand that they have to put out some effort to make their hearing aids effective.

“I personally respond to questions with open and honest information and communication. I have even encouraged obtaining second opinions especially if the client or the family has doubts,” she says. “A client is never going to get that kind of service by doing it themselves or by buying a hearing aid over the internet.”
Informing the well-informed
While some websites offer incomplete information about hearing loss and can be misleading, there is also a host of sites that feature helpful information about hearing aids, tinnitus, and hearing loss. Below is a list of sites that you can give to clients who are eager to do their own research.

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