Do you repulse your clients?

AudiologyNOW! 2017

Curtis Alcock, Audira
Curtis Alcock shares with professionals his findings on how language and behaviour impact a hearing care practice.

The hearing industry has much work to do to help those with hearing difficulties overcome the negative images, overcome the stigma, and overcome the barriers to seeking help. But what are we actually doing as a profession? One man is on a mission to change people’s attitudes, language and behaviour. Curtis Alcock, Director of Audify has devoted thousands of hours to thinking, researching, writing and presenting with the aim of encouraging hearing care professionals to work together to create a new social norm in hearing care.

Why do more people avoid hearing care than approach it? This is just one of many questions that set Curtis Alcock, independent hearing care business owner from the South West of England, on a mission to discover why three quarters of people with hearing problems do not seek help from professionals.

“All of us that work within the hearing care profession know first-hand how life-changing our work is. Yet despite our best efforts, there are still more people out there who avoid hearing care than approach it. Why? It seems that the attitudes of society towards their hearing having failed to keep pace with our own progress, so even after all these years we find ourselves bemoaning how long people wait before taking action, not to mention “the denial” and other barriers we encounter when they finally attend their first appointment.”

In his presentation at the American Academy of Audiology conference − AudiologyNOW! 2017 Alcock approached the question from the perspective of the social sciences, by looking at how attitudes are formed and shaped. Hearing care professionals will discover that much of what they do and say as a profession is, at best, maintaining many of society’s outdated attitudes – and at worst, may actually be creating some of the very barriers that make their jobs harder. Along the way they will learn the science behind what repulses people – and more importantly, the simple changes each can make to avoid doing so.

A thought-leader

Audio Infos asked Alcock how an independent hearing care professional from Devon started on a journey that has seen him present his ideas and research not just in the UK at British Society of Hearing Aid Audiology congresses and British Academy of Audiology meetings, but at events in Australia, Canada, the United States, and Europe, including at a European Union parliament session.

Several things happened in a short period of time for Alcock that prompted his work: an arguing couple in a hearing appointment, trying to ‘debunk’ myths at local community group talks and the emergence of several large retail companies in the UK. “I began thinking more and more about all our marketing messages, and questioning the role I might be playing in reinforcing all those negative attitudes that were stopping people taking action.

“Historically the percentage of people who have hearing problems, and subsequently get hearing aids had remained fairly static (e.g. 1 in 4 in the US), and I knew people take many years to reach the stage of seeking professional help. So here we had a situation where the cake was not growing any bigger, but more providers were coming along and wanting a slice of it. It was unsustainable. The only way there would be enough to go round would be to grow the market, something historically we’d been unable to do.”

Curtis looked for answers in published papers, “All I could find was research that told me what I already knew, that people’s attitudes to hearing care were generally negatives! That wasn’t much help. What the literature was missing was an understanding of how those attitudes developed in the first place. And more importantly, what we can do to change them – if indeed we could?”

Alcock embarked on a personal research project to understand how attitudes work and the factors responsible for driving social change. He had to look outside audiology, to the fields of social psychology, behavioural economics and psycholinguistics. “What I discovered, there, was a huge amount of directly applicable data, but from what I could tell, it had never been systematically applied to hearing care. Moreover, we often appeared to be doing the exact opposite of what we should be doing to help change society’s attitudes!”

An experimenter

Applying what he learnt from his studies, Alcock began experimenting with the marketing messages in his hearing practice and the language he used in hearing assessments. “I started encountering less and less resistance during appointments, and we started getting people asking for hearing assessments at an earlier age, and wanting to try hearing technology. Even more surprising, new clients/patients were repeating back to me the messages I had ‘put out there’ through our marketing. It was a real eye-opener.”

Following his initial research and seeing the results he could achieve from putting his ideas into practice, Curtis decided to start Audira, to make his findings available to others. “It’s since evolved from there into something of a grassroots movement of people from all over the world. I even know of people using my material to train others.”

Alcock is keen for hearing care professionals (and those who use their services) to change the way they think about hearing care. “We’ve been so focused on “impairment”, heralding all its negatives, that it’s no wonder we deter people!”

Curtis wants people to focus on ‘hearing’ as that is what hearing care is really about. “It’s that obvious. Why else do we fit hearing technology? It’s so that people can hear as well as they possibly can. Why? Because hearing connects us. It connects our brains to the world around us. It connects us to the minds and hearts of others, through language and music. It connects us to this exact moment and all the opportunities that being “in the right place at the right time” brings us.”

Alcock believes that is a much more attractive message and it immediately finds resonances with the public. “Who wouldn’t want to keep their connection strong and constant? This means hearing care is about empowering individuals and society to reach and maintain their potential through those connections. When we see it like that, our profession becomes one of the most important and relevant in society.”

An influencer

Curtis Alcock presented an invited lecture at AudiologyNOW! entitled, ‘The Science of Being Repulsive (and How to Avoid It)’, immediately after the General Assembly on Thursday, April 6, in the main lecture theatre. For those unable to attend the event, he has given Audio Infos some practical tips for hearing care professionals to stop repulsing their patients!

“Every time we’re about to talk about “hearing loss” or “hearing impairment”, we can try to reword it in terms of the patient’s hearing. For example, instead of saying “You have a moderate hearing loss,” explain that “these speech sounds are currently falling outside your hearing range.” That immediately gets someone thinking about how they can bring them back inside, and get back to where they want to be, rather than trying to get them to acknowledge a “loss”.

“Secondly, we must stop talking about “hearing tests” being to “detect if you have a hearing loss”. Nobody wants to find out they’re imperfect. Imagine if you saw a test that said, “Come and find out if you have bad breath.” Would that be an attractive message? Instead, talk about getting a “baseline for your hearing” or a “routine hearing check, just like eyes and teeth”. In other words, make it about “keeping your hearing at its best”, rather than screening for a condition.

“Thirdly, show people of all ages enjoying their hearing (20s, 30s, 40s, 50s…). Don’t make it about retirement or growing old. Even older people are prejudiced against images of “old people” and will naturally avoid places that stereotype them. So don’t do it! It’s that simple.”

An innovator

For innovation to happen, Alcock thinks we need more people in the profession to put themselves in the shoes of the patient/client and get frustrated on their behalf. “The irony is that we’re often hesitant about trying something different, including what we’ve been saying about attitudes. We’re so afraid we’ll upset what we already have, that we end up superstitiously clinging to our outdated approaches like a luck charm, then wonder why society’s attitudes remain so negative!

“I’ve also known people who say that whilst things are still working for them, they’ll stick with what they’ve always done. They then proceed to complain about commoditisation, PSAPs and the Internet! It’s important we realise, the two things are not unconnected. We have to be constantly disrupting ourselves. Otherwise we risk someone coming along and doing it to us. And by then, it’s too late.”

Curtis Alcock began his career in design and marketing before making the transition into hearing care 15 years ago. He is now a full-time hearing care professional and director of Audify®, an independent hearing centre in the United Kingdom. Alcock is the founder of Audira, a think tank for hearing, the main aim of which is to create a new social norm for hearing care. He has lectured internationally in Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia on how to change society’s attitudes to hearing care and has written extensively on the future of hearing care and the changing role of the hearing care professional in a world where things are become increasingly computerised and commoditised.

His articles on encouraging earlier adoption of hearing technology have featured in professional journals in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, and has twice made the front cover of The Hearing Review. In 2013, he won the Ida Institute›s award for best public awareness campaign, which has since been used in the United States and across Europe translated into 12 different languages.

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The complete version of this article was published on issue #111 of Audio Infos United Kingdom. Get to know all our international magazines!

Photo: © Audira.

Victoria Adshead, editor in chief of Audio Infos United Kingdom