While most of us are now used to wearing face masks and social distancing, life during the pandemic has been more challenging for those who are hard of hearing. The WHO estimates that 466 million people worldwide suffer from hearing loss, a figure that is expected to climb to 900 million by 2050 and which currently includes about 48 million Americans. The widespread use of face masks and shields has made communication difficult for everyone, especially those with hearing loss. They can muffle voices, lower volumes, and prevent a patient from seeing facial expressions and reading lips. Against the backdrop of other background noises, a patient may have a hard time hearing what a physician is saying.

A study assessing COVID-19’s impact found that masks and facial coverings inhibited communication for 95% of people with hearing loss in the US. The study, conducted by the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) and Cochlear Limited showed that nearly one-half of those with hearing loss experienced increased anxiety, isolation, and loneliness, with 70% more acutely aware of their hearing loss due to the pandemic and 47% more eager to explore hearing loss treatment options.

“With the prolonged pandemic, I did not realize that the mental stress and fatigue culminated over time would add to the challenges to understand with masks,” said Tim Browning, Digital Communications and Web Specialist at HLAA, who wears a hearing aid in each ear. “I am missing the day-to-day practice of listening and talking to people in face-to-face situations. Online communications and captioning are wonderful, but to effectively hear requires continual practice hearing in all situations. When we get out of practice, it becomes harder and harder to understand with masks, so we then have to advocate for ourselves all that much more.”

Certain improvements can be made. For example, physicians can face patients, speak slowly, and wear clear face masks during office visits. Clinicians can also provide visual aids, send texts, use a scheduling number system, and offer a live chat option on their websites. Also coming to the aid of those with hearing loss are the recently added offering of free automatic captioning by Zoom—the preferred method of online communication—thanks to the efforts of hearing rights advocates. In November, the US House of Representatives passed the Build Back Better Act of 2021, which would include the expansion of Medicare to cover hearing aids and services if the Senate also votes to pass the act.