By Kevin Peng, MD and Jennifer Derebery, MD
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it numerous changes. As hearing health professionals who work in close proximity to our patients, we immediately began wearing face masks not just to protect ourselves, but our patients as well. With most of our clientele being deaf or hard of hearing, even those with mild hearing loss depend, largely subconsciously, on lipreading for comprehension. Social distancing measures only compound the problem, as they place speakers and listeners at a greater physical distance than most of us are accustomed to. With these measures in place, medical office visits present real challenges for individuals with a hearing impairment.
We found the best option was to turn to telehealth, where physicians and online providers may remove masks during an online video conversation. We also tried to source masks with a transparent, impermeable (usually plastic) cover over the lips and mouth. These were very difficult to find, but certain members of our office staff were able to source a small quantity from online vendors. Individuals with hearing impairment may consider obtaining a supply to give to close friends, family, or caregivers who they may need to communicate with on a frequent basis.
While we agree with the CDC recommendation to postpone all non-essential visits, we realize that for the deaf or hard of hearing, there are unique health and communication issues that really cannot wait to be addressed. The physicians of the House Institute are still available, and will be throughout the pandemic, to see patients both in person as well as via telehealth. Perhaps more than any other recent public health event, this pandemic—with the CDC’s recommendation for universal face coverings—has reemphasized the need for the detection and treatment of hearing loss.
None of us know when the need for social distancing and masking is going to lessen, but we can realistically expect it is going to last for some time. Various experts have predicted an increase in cases in the fall, even if we are lucky enough to “flatten the curve” on a national scale. We remain optimistic, though, that modern medicine and science will allow us to overcome this virus in due time.