Counseling Assumptions/Explaining The Audiogram

Kris English, Ph.D.Kris English, PhD

The University of Akron/NOAC


Back in the day (mid-1980’s), like all Master’s degree students in the US at the time, I took a typical course in Adult Aural Rehab. For some reason I remember this little pop quiz:


I was ready for the question and jotted down the answers:

  1. take a case history
  2. conduct tests
  3. report test results
  4. make recommendations.

I got an A on the quiz, confident I had the world by the tail, eventually graduated and worked in the field… and immediately realized that my answers, although not wrong, were not enough. I was assuming that all patients were ready to accept my recommendations and would follow up accordingly. And of course, that was not happening. There were days when only a few patients moved forward with hearing help. Patients were far more complicated than I had expected, and I wasn’t factoring in any of those complications. I didn’t even know what those complications were.

There was no terminology for my approach at the time, but now I know it can be called audiologist-centered (i.e., it was all about me). Consistent with my quiz answers, I expected to direct the appointment, while the patient passively followed my lead. I didn’t intend to be disrespectful or dismissive of the patient’s role, but I held a naïve (some would say paternalistic) assumption that patients had no say because they didn’t know what I knew, and I knew best. In reality, of course adult patients are anything but passive: they are autonomous beings and they will make decisions with or without our involvement (Tauber, 2005).

In contrast to my first efforts, patient-centeredness is a concept that has now made it to “center stage” (Epstein & Street, 2010) and is considered one of the Institute of Medicine’s (2001) six key elements of high quality care. The IOM defines patient-centered care as “providing care that is respectful of and responsive to individual patient preferences, needs, and values and ensuring that patient values guide all clinical decisions” (p. 6). This kind of care requires dialogue, not monologue, and even further, the ability to develop relationships and partnerships. Today, my quiz answers would be worth a “C” grade at best.

Other Assumptions?

Another assumption that surely should be reconsidered is related to my third answer above (report test results), specifically regarding our beloved audiogram. As important as it is to us, should we assume that all patients are also equally fascinated? More than twenty years ago, Martin (1994) challenged this assumption, and yet in a recent workshop, a participant mentioned that in her 20 years of practice, it had not once occurred to her to ask this question. So let’s think about it:

  1. Do all patients really want a crash course in audiology?
  2. If not, what do they want from us?
  3. If they do prefer specific information, how do we know if we are sharing information effectively?

As we apply patient-centered principles to our audiologic practices, it seems long overdue to examine the practice of unquestionly explaining the audiogram to every patient or caregiver. Apart from habit and training, why do we do this? Is it really necessary? Is it actually meaningful? Should we give patients a choice, or do we truly believe they cannot leave the appointment without a tutorial in audiogram interpretation? Is the exercise a worthwhile use of time?

questionsWhen we examine this “auto-pilot” practice, even more questions emerge. What would happen if we do give patients a choice, and ask if they would prefer a “big picture” summary or the details?   If they choose “big picture summary,” will we freeze up? Do we use the audiogram as a prop, or can we put our test results to one side, use simple terms to clearly relate the findings to their initial concerns, and move on?

Patient-Centeredness = Patient Choice

Undoubtedly, some patients will appreciate the time spent reviewing test results, and will understand them. But we cannot assume this is always the case, and to date we also cannot consider it an evidence-based practice.  As a deeply-held tradition, reconsidering its value causes a surprising amount of angst.  But the point of patient-centeredness is, it’s not about us!


Epstein, RM & Street, RL. (2010). The values and value of patient-centered care. Annuals of Family Medicine, 9(2), 100-103.

Institute of Medicine. (2001). Crossing the quality chasm : A new health system for the 21st century. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Martin, F.N. (1994). Conveying diagnostic information. In J. G. Clark & F. N. Martin (Eds.), Effective counseling in audiology (pp. 38-67) Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Tauber AI. (2005). Patient autonomy and the ethics of responsibility. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.