August 24, 2017 / 6:55 PM / in a year

Elders may face hearing challenges at doctor's offices

(Reuters Health) - Many older adults may mishear important medical information from their healthcare providers, a study suggests.

Roughly four of every 10 elders said they had misheard a doctor or nurse, researchers in Ireland found.

“Patients may not have understood what you think they understood,” senior author Simon Smith, of University College Cork, warns health care providers.

Smith and colleagues write in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery that hearing loss is becoming more common among people over age 60.

Also, they note, medical errors are more common among older adults, who are some the healthcare system’s most dependent users.

Failure of communication is the leading cause of medical errors, earlier research has suggested.

Smith told Reuters Health that even people who haven’t been diagnosed with hearing issues - people who hear well in their day-to-day lives - may struggle in the noisy halls of a hospital.

To learn more about the proportion of older people having communication problems with healthcare providers, the researchers surveyed 100 outpatients at their hospital who were at least 60 years old.

Nearly 60 percent reported some hearing loss, and 26 percent used a hearing aid.

Overall, 43 percent reported mishearing their doctor or nurse at a hospital or a doctor’s office. The rate of miscommunication didn’t differ between age groups.

Some patients explained why they misheard their healthcare providers, and their reasons fell into one of five categories.

Descriptions of illnesses or instructions tripped up 36 percent of people, and 29 percent said they missed words or full sentences for no particular reason. People talking too fast, too many people talking at once and similar issues were cited by 27 percent of people. Pronunciation or similar-sounding words were an issue to 10 percent of people. Others reported intentionally not listening to their providers and some blamed the setting.

Smith pointed out that some of the issues can’t be corrected by simply giving people hearing aids.

“The key thing” for patients, he advises, “is to clarify with the doctor. Repeat it back would be the obvious first intervention.”

People need to recognize that hearing loss is a problem and look for it, writes Dr. Heather Weinreich, of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, in an editorial accompanying the new study.

Doctors need to change their communication style and intervene to help patients hear well, she adds.

“There are potential immediate short-term and long-term impacts of miscommunication with patient,” Weinreich writes. “We need more research into the medical errors and costs caused by hearing loss and to examine methods to provide effective communication so as to deliver high-quality patient-centered care.”

SOURCE: and JAMA Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, online August 24, 2017.

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