Are Doctor’s Offices Truly Accessible?

doctorI recently returned to my doctor for a check-up as I’m on a number of blood pressure medications. I have been on blood pressure medicines since the age of 20. My genetics guaranteed I would have blood pressure related issues.

I grimace and swallow my meds every morning and think with tongue in cheek, “Thanks, Dad!” 

I hate going to the doctor even for something as routine as a blood pressure check and to request refills for my medications. I’m not afraid of doctors. I actually LOVE my primary care. His personality and method of “doctoring” suits my personality very well. He’s very business-like and professional, but also has a level of genuine compassion lacking in many who have been in the medical field perhaps too long. His staff is fantastic. The office is close to my home and to my work, so it is very convenient.

But I hate going.

My doctor’s office is not accessible. Oh sure they have properly marked handicapped spaces in their parking lot and curb cuts for those with mobility challenges. Their waiting area is spacious and the hallways are easily navigable. My doctor’s office is very high tech. Written charts? Pffflllttttt. Thing of the past. My doctor and staff use iPads, notebooks, and stylus.

But I hate going.

Again… my doctor’s office is not accessible. At least not for me. Just in case you are new to Hearing Elmo I am a late-deafened adult, “hearing again” with a cochlear implant. I also have Meniere’s disease, a balance and vestibular disorder. I mitigate my challenges with a service dog as well.

Do you know how hard it is to step on a scale when you have a balance disorder? The platform is about 12″ x 9″. Scales are usually against a flat wall, with nary a thing in sight to grab to hold still. It isn’t like I can grab Chloe’s harness when being weighed. I don’t need her extra 62 pounds on the scale – believe me! So I grab the wall and do my best to keep from tilting. I very likely look as if I getting frisked. After some close calls I HAVE noticed that there are TWO nurses with me now when I am weighed in each time. Someone has put a note in my chart I think! I’ve tried to sneak a peek at this electronic chart. “Tilt-a Whirl Queen” or “Weebles Wobble” must be tagged somehow, I’ve just yet to actually see it in writing! (grin)

After getting weighed we head to an examination room. I sit in a chair while the nurse takes my blood pressure. It is always high, but not because of ineffective medications. It is not because I’m afraid of doctors. I’m convinced my blood pressure is high because I know what is coming. In breezes the doctor, with a smile and a firm handshake.

“Let’s hop up on the table. How have you been? Everything going OK?”

I only see the man twice a year so I can’t expect him to remember. The guy is popular with – “Best in Annapolis” kind of awards all over the wall. No way in the world he could remember. **But would it kill you to read my chart?**, I think to myself.

“I don’t hop anywhere. Sorry. As a matter of fact the table is too high for Chloe to help me so I need you to hold your arm like this…” (and I demonstrate with my elbow bent and arm horizontal to the floor). I repeat what I’ve said every time I go there, “It would be nice if these examination tables had rails or something!”

My doc is good-natured and sticks out his arm. I grab it and clamber up onto the examination table. As per usual, when I turn to sit the room tilts and I struggle to stay conscious.

“Wow, Denise. Your eyes! You have positional vertigo.” Yeah. Ya think? He sits on his stool and rolls over closer to me – unknowingly causing another bout of vertigo. I just sit there and hang on for dear life as he uses his finger to “flit” from screen to screen, reading up on my medical history.

“Well your blood pressure is pretty high. Let’s take it again.” he states while reaching for the blood pressure cuff.

I don’t say a word as I’m too busy hanging on for dear life.

After taking it he turns to me and says, “It’s high. Do you take it at home? Is it perhaps high because you are here? Many people have elevated blood pressure at the doctor’s office.”

“I take it at home and it is well within the normal range every single day.” I indicate with my eyes the paper sticking out of my bag – WayOverThere. He grabs it and scans the paper. “Wow, these numbers look great! It must just be high today because you are here”.

“Doc,” I patiently explain despite having repeated this conversation every 6 months for the past three years, “my blood pressure is high because





Again with my eyes, I indicate the death grip I have on the edge of the thin mattress.

He looked thoughtful for a moment, flicked to some more screens on the iPad and turned to grin at me. “We’ve had this conversation before, haven’t we?” Yup. I love my doctor.

So What Can Doctor’s Offices Do?

For people with hearing loss:

1. Sound baffling

Doctor’s offices are full of flat surfaces and medical equipment. It can greatly improve communication to have some type of textured wallpaper, 3-diminsional cloth artwork, or even flat art-deco carpet squares on the walls. Not much can be done for cabinets, medical receptacles, and sinks. These have to be easy to clean and disinfect. I get that.

If possible, a room or two with lower ceilings and foam ceiling tiles can greatly assist in eliminating the bounce and echo of sound.

2. Face the person

Even if you have to look down to write in a chart, or type on an iPad, turn your chair so that you are facing the person. Do this EVEN IF YOU AREN’T SPEAKING. Do you know how often people with hearing loss strain to determine if someone is even speaking?

Checking ears? Looking in eyes? Listening to their thumper? It only takes a second to look the person in the face – FIRST – and explain what you are going to do next. If you want the person to hold their breath for a second, don’t ask behind their back. Actually… what is WORSE is telling them to “OK, breathe normally” behind their back! (Grin)

3. Write everything important down

New prescriptions? Re-check in six weeks? Instructions to check things like blood pressure or blood sugar at home? Write these instructions down.

4. Take their picture

Whether you save a small digital picture to their electronic file, or staple a Polaroid into the manilla folder and chart of their medical history, know what your patient looks like. When the door opens to that waiting room and the nurse calls the name of who is to be seen next, it helps to lock eyes with that person with hearing loss when you say their name. Take my word for it. Another blood pressure spike occurs for anyone with hearing loss sitting and worrying they will miss their name being called. Chloe’s head pops up and looks at anyone saying “Denise”. However, most people with hearing loss do NOT have a service dog alongside them.

If a nurse calls the next patient and every individual still has their head buried in the eight-month-old “Good Housekeeping” magazine, chances are the person didn’t hear you. It may not help to even say the name much louder. Besides… that is embarrassing. Know what your patient looks like.

5. Don’t say, “Call me”

Even though there are many wonderful options for people with hearing loss to use the telephone, it isn’t a good idea to say, “call me”. Email should be an option available to anyone who is more comfortable making contact in written form. If the patient is waiting for test results, email them. If a refill cannot be prescribed until an appointment is made, email them. If the patient contacts your office through email, don’t respond by trying to call the number on file. Email them back. People with hearing loss are on a level playing field with email. Plus, having a written confirmation only insures there are no misunderstandings.

If a patient DOES utilize various technologies and captioned phones, be aware that the patient may ask for repeats. Or, there may be a slight delay as the patient reads what the captions display. Doctor’s offices are busy places. Be aware that another minute or two may be needed to properly and fairly communicate with a patient who has hearing loss.

6. Don’t talk when they’ve removed their assistive devices

Checking the ears of a patient must be standard procedure in medical offices. However, someone with hearing loss will:

1) need a moment to remove hearing aids and/or cochlear implants

2) need something to put them in while you check those lovely ear canals

3) need a moment to re-insert the assistive devices after the quick check

7. Be willing to repeat

You know they have a hearing loss. They know you have a busy medical practice and other patients to see. However, if they ask for a repeat, please just do it? Don’t sigh or begin talking like you are now speaking to a toddler. They aren’t stupid, they simply didn’t hear you. (People with hearing loss should learn to ask for repeats of only the parts they actually didn’t hear. In this way, others aren’t forced to repeat something completely, when perhaps only a section of what you said was actually missed).

8. Ditch the gum

I love fresh breath.

I feel for someone trying to stop smoking.

However, please refrain from chewing gum or sucking on mints when you go into the examination room of someone who probably speech reads.

For people with balance disorders:

1. Understand that heights – even small ones – can be a problem

Offer an arm or grab an elbow when people with balance disorders climb up on scales or examination tables.

Don’t finish up and say, “Meet me up front” to a half-naked patient sitting up on an examination table with a death grip on the mattress. Offer assistance to help them down. (I actually fell from an examination table getting myself down and landed on a stool which rolled and crashed into the cabinet – creating a terrible racket. The nurse ran back into the room clutching her chest and exclaimed, “You scared me to death!” Laying on the floor and looking up at her I sarcastically spit out, “Well gee. How sorry am I?” Note: My good manners fly out the door when I have to respond from the floor).

2. Move slowly

People with balance disorders often have problems with vertigo and focus when others move fast. Love that stool on rollers? Move slowly please. This isn’t a medical office Grand Prix.

3. Follow the light with your eyes…

… is easier said than done. Seriously, you have no idea how hard this can be if you have something like Meniere’s disease.

4. Sit still

Most examination rooms have stools on rollers. Many people fidget and don’t even realize they are. If you are sitting on a medical office stool, chances are this means you can swing from side to side as you talk to the patient. I’m not saying pretend you’re a statue. But bouncing knees, swinging from side-to-side, or rolling quickly from one side of the room to another can really do a number on a patient with a balance disorder.

 Patient responsibility

Ultimately, it is the patient’s responsibility to remind medical personnel what you may need to communicate effectively and navigate safely. However, some small and inexpensive adjustments can be made to make doctor’s offices more accessible.

Denise Portis

© 2013 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

S.O.M.L. – “Snoring On My Light”

Snoring on my light? Say whaaaa... ?
Snoring on my light? Say whaaaa… ?

Living with hearing loss. My friends, I have to tell you that I have learned long ago that it is much better to laugh at yourself than to get upset when your ears fall short. Besides I’ve tried the depressed, isolated, and “I surrender” route. It isn’t fun and it is lonely. It serves no purpose, nor makes a difference. Continuing to reach out, work hard, and laugh at yourself when needed, is much more productive – and life changing!

Although my classes sometimes have students my age or older in them, the majority of the classes I teach are mid-day so my students are “regular”, college-aged, young adults. I have two young adults living at home while they complete their education. I knew BEFORE I began teaching at a local community college that I don’t know the “lingo”. I don’t think they even CALL it “lingo”. But I digress…

I’m constantly being made aware that I “don’t get it” when students (or my children) use current idioms, slang, or acronyms. I not only have to ask for clarification, but I often need these things EXPLAINED to me. “Gullible” and naive have been terms to describe me since I was knee high to a skeeter. (Yeah… something else I seem to be proficient at is mixing my colloquial expressions!)

So this past week when a student I was working with to assist in getting caught up after being out sick? Well the fact that I misheard them AND missed their acronym is not a big stretch – let me tell you!

“So I’ll work with you to get you caught up. This will be a hard week, but you can do it!” I said with my best cheerleader professor voice.

“A soy meal.” the overwhelmed student replied.

I looked at them quizzically for a moment and repeated, “A SOY MEAL?” (I learned long ago to just go ahead and repeat what I thought I heard to help the other person, 1) learn how things sound to ME, and 2) help them understand the part I need repeated – so as to not require a repeat of the whole story).

With deliberate pauses the student repeated, “S.    O.    M.    L. Snoring on my light”.

Stumped and exasperated, but determined to get it right I repeated, “S.O.M.L. — Snoring on my light? Like a “Clap On” gadget?”

The student’s eyes bugged out and there was a pause. Chloe, my service dog, looked from one petrified person to the other. She yawned and settled into a down-stay. “Girl friend” has been here before and knew it was gonna take awhile…

“Professor Portis! I have NO idea what you are talking about. I never said anything about a gadget! S.O.M.L.  It means “Story of My Life”. The student had that “deer in the headlight” look at this point. Who says young adults don’t have the guts to see a difficult conversation to the end? They continued, “You know… it means my life is always like this!”

It took me a moment or two. After all there is a teeny tiny delay in what I hear to what I process anyway! “Oh. STORY OF MY LIFE. Got it…”

With relief the student gathered their things and proceeded to attempt ESCAPE. A twinkle in their eye and a deliberate pause to get my attention, she looked at me in the face and clearly intoned, Snoring on my light. You are a hoot, Professor Portis!”

Without missing a beat I retorted, “S.O.M.L.!”

Denise Portis

© 2013 Personal Hearing Loss Journal