Building a Lasting Team During COVID Time: A Conversation with Dr. Lori Ann Halvorson
COVID-19 has changed a lot about the world, oftentimes in ways we never expected. The hearing healthcare industry, for example, had to go through some huge changes, not just in dealing with patients through social-distanced means, but in even convincing people how essential these services actually are.
We sat down with Dr. Lori Ann Halvorson, AuD, FAAA Board Certified Doctor of Audiology, and Mensa Member, and she talked about many of the ways she’s been working through this pandemic to reach patients and make their lives better.
Lori had to fight to see her patients inside the nursing homes, hospitals, etc. She knew her patients relied on communicating with the world outside, so she was not going to let them isolate because they couldn’t hear. There were times that the families of Lori’s patients would ask her to Facetime them from inside the nursing home or the hospital she was visiting, because she and her team were the only people that could get inside. They were the only bridge connecting the patients with their loved ones.
Despite all the uncertainty that accompanies the pandemic, she insisted on hiring new staff because she believes that patients out there should not lose the ability to communicate with their loved ones.
You can read our full interview below. The text has been edited for clarity.
Tell us about your background. What do you do?
I have always been fascinated with the brain, and what the brain is doing, so I wanted to do something in medicine related to the brain. Hearing is the one sense in our body that never turns off and keeps us safe. I started examining that field, and then I realized how many fun sounds we listen to every day: music, cars – cars are a big interest of mine, so that led me to doing hearing safety in the racing world.
The hearing treatment led me to develop and open Lake Forest Hearing Professionals so I could give patients not just the experience of getting a product, but of having a complete treatment plan as well. They can have the product personalized to their anatomy and listening needs, [and they can also] retrain the brain and their hearing, and how things sound through the hearing aid and through their damaged system. That part of the treatment plan is about getting them hearing better…
They really have a permanent injury, which no one can see. This permanent injury is affecting how they are making decisions [on whether or not] to be in dynamic environments. If they are having a lot of difficulty with noise, they tend to… turn down invitations to go to dinner at noisy restaurants or family gatherings.
The other part of the treatment plan is to give them the confidence and the tools they need to function in that kind of environment easier, so they have a better life.
With that, I grew Lake Forest Hearing Professionals as hearing treatment-based audiology practice to give patients the treatment they need to hear easier and then to better enjoy all the people and sounds they love in life.
Then I opened Sounhaus to [focus on] the preventative end of the hearing. The World Health Organization has now claimed noise-induced hearing loss as a worldwide pandemic. We know that noise will permanently injure the hearing organ in the hearing nerves. Therefore, the goal and passion of Sounhaus is to get out into the world and teach people how to listen to sound safely and prevent damage to the auditory system… giving them the right tools to enjoy the things they want to hear without having the injury, and once they do start getting injured, helping treat and manage that.
My passion is the prevention of any damage through the tools needed to listen safely, and the treatment once the damage has happened, so they can enjoy all the sounds and the people they love to engage with.
You have been hiring and bringing on new talent, while most of your peers have either reduced headcount or closed practices. What has made you successful?
COVID has required a lot of extra safety precautions to keep people physically safe from the virus. Implementing and putting PPE’s safety practices in place, like wearing masks and social distancing has almost exasperated the effects of even a mild hearing loss.
Studies show that masks can reduce voice by about 12 decibels (which is lowering volume by about 20%), and they also take away all the visual cues that our brain typically uses to fill in any missing information that we may get. We also know that the human face is capable of over 10,000 unique facial expressions. When we take those all away and add the mask and social distancing, speech for patients with even a mild hearing loss can become unintelligible.
That’s one problem, but the other big problem with COVID is that the quarantine and social distancing have left many people isolated in their homes, nursing homes, hospitals, senior living centers – and the only communication with family, friends, or doctors is through the telephone. If there is hearing loss, even a mild loss, communication is challenging, which often becomes a safety factor. Families try to call their parents who live in other states, but the parents don’t hear the phone or can’t understand them on the phone, so there’s less communication, and they’re not able to know parents are safe from the virus or from anything else. Keeping patients connected to their loved ones – communicating with and hearing their families through the phone – was a priority.
I also do a lot of work fitting the Lyric hearing device. That device must be changed periodically (on average every 6 weeks), taken out of the patient’s ear, and put back in. Otherwise, it’s like an earplug. So, I really fought to get into hospitals and nursing homes and senior living centers to change these devices.
When it was announced that we were nonessential, and told we should close our practices, I absorbed the patients of the neighboring practices (in addition to my own patients). Even before COVID, I had considered bringing on additional talent. When some of my staff felt unsafe returning to work due to COVID, I knew I had to start hiring so I could follow my passion for keeping families connected with their loved ones.
Hearing keeps us safe and helps us communicate with people. Vision might keep us connected to things, but hearing keeps us connected to people. That connection is healthy, not only for safety reasons but also for anxiety and depression. Social distancing does not mean everyone has to be isolated; it means having different means to stay connected with people, and hearing is one of them.
If you have difficulty hearing on the phone, the person on the other end may tolerate that for a short time, but they soon get exhausted and decide to cut the call short. They might think twice about calling back because they know it’s going be hard work to communicate on the phone. Because hearing affects emotions more than any other sense, I knew that the phone was an issue emotionally. People were staying home and had no one to communicate with, and this became an emotionally anxious kind of pandemic on its own… Hearing was a way to make life easier for my patients.
So, we kept going, and we hired staff willing to keep going with us, and willing to create leadership in the industry to show the value of hearing and treatment. Currently, commercial advertising shows the value of hearing as a device that you buy somewhere, and hopefully, that device is going to create all the solutions you need.
Because this is permanent damage, and there is so much emotion and safety involved, the treatment requires more than buying an object. We are happy and passionate about providing this tailored treatment to our patients and the patients’ families.
You decided to hire recent audiology graduates, even though you could have hired seasoned audiologists. Why did you make that decision?
This is an excellent question.
I was looking for some passion and some new energy to bring to the field, and given COVID, it was tricky because people felt unsafe – both employees and patients. I was looking to teach new talent to have the grit to speak up for what makes patients’ lives better and more comfortable. So we moved forward through COVID doing what we do best: providing good hearing treatment plans to make lives safer, easier, and better.
I have also gone through the same programs as these graduates, So I understand how much work it takes, through the educational process and even the residency internship process. As a provider, it was my responsibility to give recent graduates a chance to start their profession in this new direction that I am passionate about bringing the field towards. In a way, it was my responsibility to give back to the field.
While a tenured person would be easier, they already know what they know. I thought it would help keep the private practice audiology field growing with new talent, and [I wanted to give] them the opportunity to get as excited as I am about making people’s lives better through good hearing.
How have your patients responded to you being there for them during all the challenges of COVID?
Never before in my career have I seen so many family members call to thank us for help keeping them connected to their parent (or parents), for the way we had kept them safe, or thanking us for seeing and helping their parents at the curbside. We did many hearing tests. We fit hearing aids, changed lyrics, and cleaned hearing aid in curbside through car windows.
Sometimes patients reacted with joyful tears. We had one patient from another practice that was closed due to COVID, and he had tremendous difficulty hearing. He was pre-diagnosed with cognitive decline. Being lonely, not being able to hear, combined with the COVID, had driven him to significant isolation from everyone around him. By the time we evaluated and treated him with the right hearing solutions, he walked out dancing, saying that he had a whole new reason to live. When you are sitting all alone and cannot hear anything, your life is lonely, so this reenergized him to be happy and to move forward.
We had many patients telling us that it has been challenging to be locked up with a spouse or family member who cannot hear because they have to repeat themselves two, three, four, five times. But once that person starts hearing again, it feels like they got a new husband, a new spouse, a new wife, and life becomes more manageable for all of them.
The emotional joy that patients expressed to my team and me – whether they are the other doctors, the office manager, my chief of staff, or the director of operations – cheered up the patient and the patient’s family and team. Everybody is leading together to continue with this mission of making sure COVID does not isolate people. While we have to remain distant and wear masks, it does not have to be isolating.
We just have to develop new solutions to make that easier. We have a mobile hearing clinic, and we got special permission to gear up and get every possible PPE, and we go into nursing homes or hospitals or even patients’ homes.
We have changed and helped people on their front porches, in their garages, through their windows. So whatever it takes. We have been really energized to continue the mission to help them hear, and the response has been overwhelming. We have gotten flowers delivered, and sweet notes and cards, and we have seen patients jumping and dancing. That energy is more than any financial bonus for me, which has also energized my team.
Is there anything that you would do differently? And any words of wisdom for your peers?
The one thing I may have done differently would be trying to get access to larger amounts of PPE sooner. As a small boutique practice, it’s been challenging to keep up with the PPE that we need for each team member. [I would also try to] make special accommodations, change our offices around, the air purifiers, and even the protective screens at the front desk. I would have tried to get access to larger amounts of that sooner.
When it comes to my peers, I know they understand and probably share the same passion for helping people hear better. As a field, I would have loved us to unite with the passion of being essential during this time when people were physically separated, but I understand that everyone has to do what makes them feel safe, and each individual had a different kind of health concern that we’re not aware of. So, I guess the primary thing I would have done is really trying to advocate for large quantities of PPE.
What is in the future? We have been told you are always thinking ahead!
We are continuing to fine-tune our mobile and concierge services, since COVID seems [like it will] be around for a while. We really want to get the message out and educate everyone about the value and the need to treat hearing, not just buying devices, and we are doing that two years at a time.
Once they come in and understand how the whole treatment for this permanent injury has to work, they become advocates and share that with others. Our future is to continue leading this message about the value of hearing, and how it can keep loved ones and us safe. The things we can do to make it easier to hear – even during COVID – and how the ability to hear well can improve the quality of our lives, as well as the lives of the people around us.
How would you describe yourself in three words?
Intellectually curious, visionary, passionate.
Thank you so much for your time!