Einhorn’s “Voices of Light,” an oratorio that accompanies the famous film. Image from Colorado Public Radio.

Richard Einhorn composes ethereal and emotional music, transcending the often political nature of his subject matter, from Joan of Arc to Henrietta Lacks and even the Cuban Missile Crisis, so that the listener connects with humanity. Richard is also a staunch and jet-setting advocate for people with hearing loss; his advocacy began after he developed moderately-severe mixed hearing loss himself. He may give a talk at an HLAA meeting one day, travel to the CES show the next, and then hop over the Atlantic to give consulting advice for hearing technology companies. He’ll also brief me about the newest hearing technologies before they even pop up in my Google feed. In my opinion, though let’s remember that my background also includes sound engineering, there wasn’t anyone better-suited to give our commencement speech when my classmates and I graduated from our Audiology Doctorate program at the CUNY Graduate Center this past spring. Richard’s advice pertains to any audiologist, not only recent graduates. I wanted to highlight the most poignant and practical pieces of advice he imparted upon us that day.

Commencement advice from Richard Einhorn

Take a two-winged approach with patients:

  1. Get over the totally ridiculous notion that you can help patients,
  2. be as single-pointed as an  icicle.

“Listen with sympathy and warmth.”

Of course, he expounded: You cannot help patients, but you can help people. In other words, “you don’t need your expertise, but your humanity.” People come in to see us and are often nervous and vulnerable, or perhaps excited, too, with impossible expectations. Audiologists must be able to connect with this person. How do we bring forth our humanity? Not with jargon, Richard told us, but with compassion. Try to see an individual, not just another patient, and ask them about themselves. “Ask about her family. What kind of music does she like? Ask if she enjoys hanging out with her friends. Where do they meet?”

And the icicle?

Well, Richard told us that, “another part of your mind … needs to coldly observe every nuance of your interaction and note the facts with the precision of a, well, a fine doctor of audiology!” This is akin to supervisors and professors reminding us to approach clinical practice like a detective, observe clues (is the person turning one of their ears towards us when listening?) and be weary making assumptions (not every notch at 4kHz means noise exposure).

Where true skill and expertise comes in is that as audiologists, we have to fly with both wings: “Merely connecting on a human level is worthless unless you know what you’re talking about. “

Richard pulled back on the dramatic effect and summarized his advice: ” ‘Don’t think there’s a patient there’ really means ‘just be a decent human being’ and mentally take off that white coat. And ‘be an icicle’ means to objectively observe all the data and be accurate in diagnosis.”

This advice was like combining the ingredients of a basil-lime gimlet in a shaker and finally shaking it; everything we’ve learned in coursework and as student clinicians needs to be smoothly combined. Will it happen overnight? No way. Some of us are naturally better at the compassion part, others better at the clinical diagnosis. But the goal, and Richard’s point, is to hone both skills.  Ultimately, this is how the profession of audiology will survive the disruptive technologies that have already started to make their marks, like self-fitting hearing aids.

Ok, this isn’t basil it’s shiso. Close enough.

Finally, some practical advice that as an audio engineer I wanted to jump up and shout “YES!!!” when Richard bestowed it upon us. 

More Advice to AuDs from a Person with Hearing Loss: Listen!

Listen to the hearing aids!

  • Most people you’ll see don’t know how to describe sound quality problems. As a sound designer, I encounter this with directors and producers as well. So just stick the hearing device in your ear! (Or pull out your listening scope if it’s a custom.)
  • Do some field testing with hearing aids. Switch between different programs when you’re in a restaurant, is 3dB of extra noise reduction offered in the “premium” technology noticeable?

Develop an ear for good sound quality.

  • Buy yourself some good quality headphones/earphones
  • Buy a quality soundbar for your TV if you like watching films
  • Record sounds you enjoy and listen back to them, it’ll help you understand mic technique better.

I see pitfalls in the audio engineering community when it comes to the auditory system and hearing conservation. However, pitfalls also exist in audiology when it comes to sound fidelity. It is time to bridge the two worlds together. All in all, I don’t know if my classmates took his advice seriously (I think everyone was day-dreaming about the cocktails we would imbibe after the ceremony), but hopefully those of you reading this will.

For more thoughts about how audiologists can better connect with their patients, er, excuse me, I mean with people, check out Shari Ebert’s blog post How Can Audiologists Help Their Patients Hear Their Best?