Communicating with and cultivating new patients for your practice

Danielle Campbell-Angah
is a former editor of an audiology magazine and currently works as a freelance writer for CareCredit, as well as for other hearing health care companies.

Facilitating the hearing of seniors with routine onsite maintenance and, when needed, new hearing aids helps to make patients loyal to you and willing to spread news of your outstanding service to their retirement community neighbors.

The Baby Boom Generation has changed our perceptions of aging in a variety of ways, and yet another arena in which they can be held responsible for a paradigm shift is with retirement communities. No longer considered merely places to live out one’s last days, retirement communities now are residences where many mature adults go to truly live—sans jobs, property taxes, children to raise, and other responsibilities to which their younger counterparts devote much time and resources.

A detailed study from the National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing & Care Industry (NIC) indicated that from 1999 to 2000 there were 46,131 senior housing facilities in the country, and that these properties could hold more than 3.4 million seniors.1 The same report noted that there were nearly 12,000 senior apartment buildings (where supportive services aren’t offered), with more than 800,000 units.1

Residents of senior communities have varying abilities, with some receiving full medical assistance and others living independently and actively. Although physical ability may differ, all residents of retirement communities still have communication needs that require the help of hearing care professionals.

Consider offering educational seminars and hearing services at these locations to reach more people in need of your help. If these seniors are in need of new hearing aids, consider offering payment plan options to them, as living in these new luxury homes may keep much of their money tied up.

The New Retirement Communities
Retirement communities have been around since the 19th century, when churches offered care to widows who paid for the services,2 but today’s retirement communities are often nothing like what your grandparents or even parents experienced. Consider, for example, that hotelier Hyatt now offers what it calls “luxury senior living” through its Classic Residence communities, situated in 11 states across the country. Among other premium amenities, these residences offer gourmet meals created by chefs trained at the Culinary Institute of America.2Amenities that are common to the new wave of senior living centers include fitness centers, swimming pools, computer centers, and lots of fun activities, including movie nights, concerts, and parties. In this kind of environment, there is plenty to do — and plenty of reason to feel isolated from others if one has untreated hearing loss.

Hearing care professionals have opportunities to reach out to these retirement community residents on-site with educational seminars and hearing aid maintenance. By offering these services, practitioners will also have the opportunity to provide new and upgraded hearing aids to residents through relationships built with them—relationships that will be long-term because most people remain in retirement communities for the rest of their lives.

Dean Messick, MA, MBA, a hearing aid specialist for Advanced Hearing Systems, Warminster, Pa, says his practice has been offering services to retirement communities for nearly 30 years and offers hearing help at nearly 70 different facilities. They have primarily gained these opportunities through long-term patients of theirs who have moved into the communities, as well as health care professionals who are familiar with the reputation of the practice. These other health professionals “will call us when people need our services,” Messick says. “When we’re needed, we’re there.”

Maintenance Services
Messick says Advanced Hearing Systems Inc performs many free services “to make sure people are getting the best use of their hearing aids.” These include maintenance services, such as cleaning cerumen out of hearing aids, and replacing battery doors, volume controls, and retrieval strings. Some services, like replacement of tubing for behind-the-ear hearing aids, have a nominal fee.

Rebecca Grady, MA, co-owner of Highline Audiology, Seattle, has been visiting retirement homes for more than 20 years and started servicing the needs of this population at the request of her patients. “Some of them recommended that we investigate coming out,” Grady says. By herself, she services one retirement community with two different apartment complexes. She visits each wing of the community quarterly to offer free hearing screenings, as well as hearing aid cleaning and maintenance. Before each visit, patients sign up for a 15-minute time slot for care. If patients call the office requesting additional items, like wax guards or bricks for hearing aid dryers, she will also bring those for sale.

Grady generally sees healthier retirement community residents, but will go to service her patients in the nursing home area if they request it.

Although Grady, like Messick, considers making these trips a service to her established patients, she also cultivates new patients during these visits—some of whom do not have hearing aids. If a resident has no hearing aids but is concerned about their hearing ability, she tests the person by conducting a quick threshold search to give herself an idea of the person’s current level of hearing. If the senior has hearing loss, she explains to them what hearing aids can do and refers them to her office for a complete hearing evaluation.

Additionally, “if someone has an old hearing aid or hearing aids they’re not satisfied with, that can’t be fixed by just cleaning them, I also will refer them to our office for an evaluation and either reprogramming or new hearing aids,” she says.

Cost-of-Living Issues
When any of these patients are referred to the office for hearing aids, it is a good idea to offer payment plans as a means of purchasing the new amplification. Continuing care retirement communities often have entrance fees of $100,000-$300,000, depending on accommodations, and residents often pay monthly maintenance fees ranging from $1,000-$4,000.2As a result of spending tens of thousands of dollars to enter one of these communities, and several thousands more per year out of contractual obligation, some patients may appreciate having an affordable, monthly payment to make on hearing aids rather than financing the full cost all at once. Additionally, payment plans can be approved right away, over the phone, so patients won’t have to wait long to hear a decision or have to make multiple trips to the practice.

It can be beneficial to regularly visit retirement communities to put yourself in touch with new patients who may need their first pair of hearing aids, or patients old and new who need an upgraded hearing aid. The challenge, notes Grady, is to ensure ample time during the visits to check on both new and established patients, because it can become easy to get booked up with “the regulars.”

Another major logistics challenge comes from finding a place to meet with patients on-site. Grady has designated space in each of the facilities she visits; in one, she operates out of the resident nurse’s office, and in the other she sets up in the library. “Both work really well,” she says.

Residence Staff Relations
Grady has found from experience that dealing with the nursing staff—particularly the resident nurse or the director of nursing—is the best course of action for getting special requests fulfilled. These professionals tend to have an immediate understanding about the need for better hearing among residents, and they also tend to be more flexible than front-desk people when it comes to accommodating visitors providing services to residents.

She finds it important to stay on top of who the appropriate contact person is, as turnover rates can be high in these communities. “Sometimes you have a contact person and then the next time she’s not there, so you have to figure out who the new contact person is,” Grady says. “It’s a really good idea to be friendly and keep on really good terms with any contact people there, as well as front desk receptionists.”

Regarding her needed equipment and supplies, Grady doesn’t keep any of these items on site, but brings a portable audiometer with her every time, along with other products like an otoscope, cleaning tools and supplies, and a jodi-Vac.

If you are interested in cultivating a retirement community niche for your practice, Grady recommends contacting the facilities and letting the director of nursing know of your interest, then asking if anyone is currently providing hearing services to the residents. If someone is handling those duties, she asks the nursing director if she is satisfied with the current provider. If all is well with the current provider, Grady asks if the nursing director would be interested in having her come in to provide an in-service to the staff about hearing aids and hearing loss, as well as basic communication strategies to use with people who are hard of hearing.

Once you have developed a group of facilities to visit, you will likely find this to be yet another rewarding aspect of being a hearing care professional. “It’s a feeling of accomplishment that can be very great,” says Messick of his retirement community trips. “Most people who live in retirement communities are very active and have wonderful stories to tell. Those who are not able to get around as much as they used to still need to hear…hear staff and nurses, as well as visiting friends, relatives, and grandchildren.”

Additionally, Grady noted that providing services to retirement communities is “a service to my patients, but also a marketing tool.” Facilitating the hearing of patients with routine maintenance and, when needed, new hearing aids helps to make patients loyal to you and willing to spread news of your outstanding service to their retirement community neighbors.

1. National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing & Care Industry. Industry. Frequently asked questions. Available online at: Accessed June 9, 2006.

2. Moos B. The CCRC: This isn’t your grandfather’s old folks home. The Dallas Morning News: Sept. 27, 2005. Available online at:
. Accessed June 9, 2006.

Correspondence can be addressed to HR;or Danielle Campbell-Angah at [email protected].