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Why You Should Consider Humanitarian Audiology

This article was originally written for the Hearing Journal’s 3-part series on Humanitarian Audiology and is a direct copy of the article.

Part One: Helping Others Gave Me So Much More

Burnout. Stress. Disillusion. It can happen to anyone who is working hard to provide quality hearing health care to their patients while keeping up with technology and, for practice owners, running a business as well.

Stressors, including COVID-19-related regulations and challenges, industry disruptions like OTC and online hearing aid offers, and distractions like hiring, rising overhead costs, and marketing, all take a toll over time and sometimes make me wonder why I got into this profession in the first place.

Deep breath.

I love my patients, and I value my profession as an audiologist. I also know I need something more—and I find that missing something in humanitarian audiology.

Who knew that adding one more thing to my already full plate would bring me more energy and help me remember why I co-founded the nonprofit Pacific Hearing Connection with Deborah W. Clark, AuD, who will be writing part two of this article series.

The Need Is Great

As audiologists, we understand the importance of quality hearing healthcare. In the United States, untreated hearing loss may lead to isolation, depression, and lower earning potential. In many other countries throughout the world, though, hearing loss may lead to ostracization, little or no education, and physical abuse.

Here are some facts to consider:

  • According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 5% of the world’s population—or 430 million people—have hearing loss greater than 35 dB in a better ear. 34 million are children (WHO, 2021).
  • WHO also estimates that nearly 80% of people with disabling hearing loss live in low- and middle-income countries and that unaddressed hearing loss poses an annual global cost of US$980 billion (WHO, 2021).
  • Alfred Mwamba, MSc, is the only audiologist in Zambia, a country with a population of over 18 million people (Hearing Journal. 2014).
  • “At the end of 2019, the number of refugees registered in Jordan stood at 744,795,” states the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency website. “655,000 Syrians, 67,000 Iraqis, 15,000 Yemenis, 6,000 Sudanis, and 2,500 refugees from a total of 52 other nationalities.” According to the U.N. World Food Program, half of all Syrian refugees in Jordan are children (UNHCR, 2019).
  • Hear the World reports that “With a population of over 12.7 million, Guatemala is the most populous state in Central America. More than half the population live in poverty and is considered to be medically under-resourced” (“Early Detection of Hearing Loss and Sustainable Care: #hearguatemala.” https://www.hear-the-world.com/, 2016).

Making A Difference

Traveling to another country with limited electricity, language barriers, and cultural differences can be challenging;  it isn’t something I could have navigated on my own.

I was fortunate enough to find Hearing the Call, a humanitarian organization with like-minded audiologists, logistics magicians, and solid partnerships, which gave me the opportunity to serve in countries like Zambia, Jordan, Mozambique, and Guatemala.

It opened my eyes to how often we in the United States take our country’s resources and the health care system we have for granted. The challenges faced just make the results that much more precious.

The days are often grueling and long, but I can see that the lives of those we serve are forever changed, which enhances my life as well.

I will always remember one nine-year-old boy in Guatemala, Jefri, who was beaten in school and eventually expelled because his teachers thought he wasn’t paying attention. His mother had died, and his father was struggling to provide food and shelter for his children.

During a clinic day, our team discovered a profound mixed hearing loss in both ears—one had no eardrum due to numerous ear infections, and the other was perforated. Since our time is limited and patients often travel great distances, all services must be completed within a day.

For a frightened little boy, this was a marathon appointment of testing, EMI, and hearing aid fittings. In fact, Jefri was so nervous when we first met him that he threw up in the nearest garbage bin.

But by the end of the day, with some games and loving attention thrown in during and between procedures, Jefri was giving us hugs, imitating sounds, and knocking on the tile walls to make his own noise. What a difference! Now, Jefri can find success in school with hopes of a brighter future.

The people I have met during my global humanitarian work have the same goals of providing for their families and being productive members of their community as I have. We can’t change the circumstances, but we can offer help by giving the “gift of hearing.”

Helping In Our Own Backyard

I’m often asked, “Why go so far away to help when there are people in this country who are under-served or under-insured who also deserve to hear their best?”

Well, the answer has been to start a local nonprofit organization to serve my local community, Pacific Hearing Connection (PHC). (In fact, most of the U.S. audiologists I work with globally also give back locally.) And, as part of our program, we ask those who benefit from our services to “give back” to another nonprofit in the area.

It has been exciting to witness how passing along a kindness can boost confidence through paying it forward. Many of our PHC patients continue working at their chosen nonprofit long after their required hours. The organizations benefiting from our patients are thankful as well. It’s a win-win situation.

Unexpected Benefits

I started volunteering my time and audiology expertise to help others but have gained many unexpected gifts for both myself and my practice. Here are some examples:

Humanitarian Audiology

  • Not the only one. In working with other audiologists in less-than-ideal situations, I have strengthened my problem-solving skills and flexed new creative muscles, making me a better audiologist in my daily practice. The input and ideas I receive from other audiologists I meet along the way are priceless. The lifelong friendships aren’t bad either.
  • Cause branding. More and more studies show a huge uptick in people who want to support companies that take a stand for social issues. I find this to be true in my practice. Not only have I had patients show gratitude and become more engaged when they see humanitarian photos in my office, but they also want to become a part of the solution. One woman donated her recently deceased husband’s hearing aids just before a trip to Jordan, asking that they would be put to good use. I was able to report back that two refugee sisters with hearing loss were each given one. The sisters were thrilled to be able to hear again, and their family was extremely grateful. The woman was comforted, knowing that during great loss, she was able to help others and honor her husband.
  • Hiring differentiation. It’s always a challenge to find and keep outstanding audiologists and staff members. By offering the opportunity to participate in our humanitarian work, our employee turnover is incredibly low. Helping to change the world can be a powerful motivation.

Moving Forward

We still have far to go. The goal is for in-country sustainability. We must provide immediate relief and then work toward development and empowerment so people can help themselves. We need to help support and train international audiology students and hearing health care professionals who will, in turn, create lasting change.

The challenges faced just make the results that much more precious. The days are often grueling and long, but I can see that the lives of those we serve are forever changed, which enhances my life as well.

Everyone who volunteers, no matter the extent, has their unique story. I started out wanting to mix things up and experience something new in my professional life. I have received so much more than I ever could have imagined during the years since.

Here’s to starting your humanitarian journey! Wonders await.

Do you know somebody that needs to see this? Why not share it?

Jane H. Baxter, Au.D.

Dr. Baxter became a partner at Pacific Hearing Service in 1986 and both manages and provides audiology services at the Menlo Park office. She completed her clinical doctorate in Audiology (Au.D.) at Salus University, received her graduate training at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley, and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Audiology and certified by the American Board of Audiology.

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