It’s been an exciting ride,” says Dr Ronna Fisher, AuD, FAAA, founder of Hearing Health Center, “and I’ve never regretted a second of it.”
Dr Fisher, and the company she founded in 1984, still points the way for the audiology profession almost 3 decades later. According to Dr Fisher, Hearing Health Center was one of the first clinics in America to fit in-the-canal (ITE) hearing aids, first in Chicago to offer digital hearing aids, first in Chicago and its western suburbs to offer the Lyric hearing aid, and first audiologist in America to contract with HMOs. And the list goes on.
Now Hearing Health Center faces the same challenges we all face: an aging baby boomer population, a changing healthcare landscape, and more competition to acquire patients than ever before. The audiology pioneer doesn’t fear the future though. She’s already overcome too many obstacles in her past.
Rheumatic fever left Ronna’s father with a permanent heart condition and a progressive hearing loss. By the time she was a teenager, her dad had a severe, high frequency sensorineural hearing loss.
“The TV was blasting all the time,” says Fisher. “It got so unbearable that we had to relegate my dad to an upstairs bedroom with the door closed where he had to watch TV alone.
“He was always frustrated and would constantly yell at my mom,” she continues. “They gradually stopped going out to movies, restaurants, and playing bridge. And I was frustrated too. I was embarrassed by his continual pleas for repetition, angry that he seemed to ignore me and relied on me to tell him what was going on, and most of all guilty… because I knew it wasn’t his fault. What I mostly remember was saying, ‘Forget it,’ ‘Never mind,’ and ‘It’s not important.’ Actually, it was important. He missed so much of my life.”
During that time, doctor after doctor said that hearing aids wouldn’t help her father. He’d just have to live with it. Only later would she learn they could have changed his life.
In college, her roommate was an audiologist. “I didn’t even know there was such a thing,” Fisher marvels. She decided she wanted to pursue a career in audiology, too. At the time, it was against the code of ethics of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) for an audiologist to dispense hearing aids; they could diagnose the hearing loss, but had to send patients in need of amplification to a hearing aid dealer.
“I couldn’t live with that,” she says. “I never saw them again…I didn’t know what happened to them.”
The VA hospital was the only venue where an audiologist could actually give a patient hearing aids. “I had no idea what a difference hearing aids could make in someone’s life,” says Fisher. “I’ll never forget the first time I saw a patient cry when I put hearing aids on them. I loved getting to know them and forming a long-term relationship with them. I couldn’t wait to go home and fix my father. I couldn’t wait to change his life!”
Two months later, Ronna’ father died during emergency heart surgery. He was 53 years old.
Fisher made a difficult decision. Immediately after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh with a Master of Science in Audiology, she went to work for a hearing aid dispenser. She could not obtain her license of her certification. She was considered unethical by ASHA, her profession’s governing association. “I didn’t care,” said Fisher. “I loved what I was doing.” Only several years later, in 1979, did ASHA finally sanction audiologists to dispense hearing aids.
At that point, Fisher was ready to start her own practice in Chicago. She received some critical help from an unlikely source: Chicago billionaire Abe Pritzker. The founder of the Hyatt hotels was so happy as Fisher’s patient he wanted her to start her own practice. And he bankrolled the whole start-up.
From the beginning, Dr Fisher focused her practice on customer service, on cutting edge technology, and on establishing a long-term relationship with her patients. “We pay personal attention to our patients’ care…we know every one of them personally. We remember their birthdays, their kids’ and grandkids’ names, where they went on vacation. We look at the total individual—their needs, lifestyle, drug history, overall health. I’ve also written a book to guide our patients through the first several months of their journey to better hearing.” Fisher also wrote the Proven Process for Success, the “Bible” at Hearing Health Center that every team member must follow.
“Every staff member must believe in our mission and embody our core values of going ‘above and beyond,’ doing what you say and exhibit impeccable integrity,” explains Dr Fisher. “They must have great passion and a desire to learn and grow. Every interaction gives them a chance to change someone’s life. I expect a lot from everyone. I expect the best!”
In 2005, Fisher created the Fisher Foundation for Hearing Healthcare, a one-of-a-kind, not-for-profit enterprise. Inspired by her father, its purpose is to educate patients, physicians, and “everyone who will listen” about the consequences of untreated hearing loss. “I am still fighting the misperception that hearing loss is a normal part of aging. It’s never normal not to hear,” says Fisher.
The Foundation offers free new and refurbished hearing aids to the needy, educates the community and physicians about little known medical effects of hearing loss (increased risk of dementia, falling, strokes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea), and offers free high-tech hearing protection for combat soldiers about to be deployed.
Today, the Hearing Health Center is widely honored by colleagues and the public. Dr Fisher was honored with the Hometown Hero Award from Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, and was decorated as the Women in Business of the year. The practice has also received an Outstanding Service award from the state, as well as being voted one of the best practices in Illinois 2 years in a row by its peers.
As for the future of audiology, Dr Fisher says it’s just going to get more exciting. “We’re going to be offering a wider variety of solutions than ever,” she says. “From carrying many manufacturers, offering connectivity to phones and TVs, and displaying an array of devices that will assist in hearing. My new mission is lobbying patients and public venues to install more loops. Every time I demo a patient what [a loop system is] like, they can’t believe the clarity; they can’t believe they can hear every word. They can’t wait to finally go out again to see a movie or play or return to their church or synagogue.”
In addition, Dr Fisher says audiologists are about to emerge from their professional vacuums and become a critical part of the overall healthcare team. “The more we discover how closely linked auditory deprivation is to cognitive function, dementia, diabetes, falling and balance issues, and on and on, we’re going to be working more closely with physicians. That’s especially true with healthcare reform, which now rewards health systems for the long-term health of their patients.”
To all these ends, Dr Fisher predicts future audiologists will put an even greater emphasis on customer service. She believes the profession will have to focus on the amenities; the entire patient experience— from the moment a patient walks through the door to the follow-up letter weeks later. Hearing Health Center’s own locations in Chicago, Naperville, Oakbrook, and Highland Park are professionally designed, and the staff is always smiling and upbeat. The goal is to immediately create an upscale, yet warm and caring, professional impression.
Another future challenge for audiologists will be the aging workforce, especially as the baby boomers delay retirement. The audiologist says their hearing problems on the job will significantly affect productivity. She believes the government may likely be forced to intervene with tax credits for hearing devices and more funding for auditory research.
“Ultimately,” says Dr Fisher, “our future depends on getting some new messages out to the public; that losing your hearing isn’t just an acceptable part of getting older, that good hearing is a critical key to happiness, that seeing an audiologist involves far more than just buying a piece of plastic and electronics, and finally that hearing aids don’t make you older, they help keep you young.
“If we can spread these messages, I can only imagine what the next 30 years will bring to our profession.”