Your Story (March 2015)

Robert Beiny, who is a British audiologist, owns The Hearing Healthcare Practice. The name alone tells you that his practice is in a category-of-one. Based in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, United Kingdom (UK). Robert and his team pride themselves on delivering a highly personalized patient experience. In this edition of Your Story, find out how Robert has brought his plan to life and what category-of-one status means to him.

AP: Please describe your practice for us, Robert?

RB: Well, December 1976 saw some key moments: A Star is Born, with Barbra Streisand, premiered, Fidel Castro became President of Cuba, Paul McCartney released Wings over America, Wonder Woman debuts on ABC and I began my journey in the world of Audiology.

After 17 years of working for one London-based Centre, I decided to take the leap and attempt to create an a practice with its own identity, which has an identifiable presence: A place where I could hopefully allow my vision of what a practice should be for everyone who needs to interact with it--whether they be clients or patients, audiologists, front of house and backroom staff, other professionals and referral sources, medics and journalists.

The task was made harder because I wanted to create something that had never been done before, where every aspect of interaction was simply the best it could be.

After 20 years, our practice has now finally found its permanent home. Our initial premises presented a homely cottagey feel in a building which looked much older than it was. It was built in the 1950’s from reclaimed materials. The reception had a huge inglenook fireplace and a beamed ceiling made from Elizabethan ship timber dating back to the mid 1500’s. It was eclectic and very different.

We moved into our second home in 2002, Wellington House, a Regency building part dating back to 1759. There were grand rooms and our reception occupied the old music room – a very traditional medical consultant type property with a hint of Downton Abbey about it!

In 2013, circumstances presented the opportunity to move again and this time to create our own space as the new home was just an empty shell. Since 1993, we had built the reputation as a Centre of Excellence, as the ‘drive-to destination’ for hearing care if you sought out the best. The latest move though presented a whole new opportunity where I could allow the designer side of my character to flourish.

I appreciate good design but have never seen a practice that puts as much effort into the environment as it does to the clinical side of things. Our clients hopefully embark on a life-changing, long-term journey with us, and I wanted to create an immersive experience that they could interact with.

AP: What makes your practice unique compared to others in your area?

RB: The UK is an unusual market with the dominance of the state National Health Service (NHS), who is the largest purchaser of hearing aids globally, consuming some 9% of total output. Audiological support and hearing aids are provided without charge at the point of delivery and the playing field is loaded to this single competitor.

The retail sector is dominated by large chains, mainly located within pharmacies or optical outlets. There are a handful of chains who just supply hearing services. The independent sector is quite diverse with a handful of small companies with one to six outlets (many not full time), sole traders who run domically services, NHS staff who see patients privately as well as provide the free state service. There are also some internet cut-price online providers. It’s a mixed bag of providers, where sadly price-led marketing is the name of the game, turning hearing aids into commodities and patients into consumers. I suppose what makes us unique is that we don’t occupy the same world as these other providers. If ‘price is king’ then service and everything else ultimately falls by the wayside. We, on the other hand, are about doing it differently and significantly better than anyone else. I decided a few years ago that we had to believe we are in a ‘field of one’ so there is no competition. If you have that much belief, you can’t just say it, you have to be able to put it into practice and that’s where the new premises have allowed us to turn the interaction into an experience.

If someone makes the decision to travel significant distance to our offices, they will do this with an expectation of what they will be greeted with at the other end. The uniqueness of our approach is that we try to exceed the expectations that they don’t even know they have.

The reaction that we get from the first impression to outcome measures and surveys show that we achieve this goal time and time again. Every day someone walks in the first time and exclaims “Wow”.

AP: What does the term “best practices” mean to you?

RB: To me, best practices underlines our ethos, it needs to pervade everything that we do whether it’s clinical, audiological, physical, marketing and even business. Every interaction with everyone has to invoke best practices. If we are to truly achieve Centre of Excellence status we need to do things that make people stop and react in a positive way.

AP: What has been your greatest lesson learned from your experiences as a business owner?

RB: I have learnt that you can never stop, never rest on your laurels. If you’re going to innovate, to educate, to influence others in the profession and the industry and deliver a level of care for those with hearing and communication issues, you have to accept that there is no journey’s end to creating “best practices”. You need to have untold energy and passion to read and listen and think and create. If you make a mistake, then admit it, learn from it and move on.

AP: If you could advise a new graduate deciding on a professional setting, what advice would you give them?

RB: Look at the professional settings in your area and then do something different. The only way to stand out in the crowd is to be different. So take time to do some research and see how other types of businesses present themselves to the public. Look who is successful and try to ask why you think that is. What is it about company A) which makes it more attractive than company B) in your eyes?

What are the touch points that people react to. Take a look at the hotel and hospitality industry and see what is in vogue. These companies have the luxury of being able to afford the best consultants to advise them on brand identity and awareness. It’s worthwhile taking a critical look around you to see what works for them and if you can adapt what you see to a healthcare arena.

AP: What do you like best about being an audiologist?

RB: Without doubt, changing some someone’s life for the better. Giving them the opportunity to reconnect with people and the world around them. I am passionate about music and couldn’t imagine what life would be like if that was taken away from me. Music is such a wonderful thing in our life it moves us to tears, it makes us smile, it can transport back to a place in our past. If I can give someone who loves music the chance to fully re-experience it again then I am really happy.

Regrettably so many patients have had inadequate audiological support before they arrive on our doorstep and I am driven to make that difference for them, to show them that they were right to put their trust in us. We don’t take this responsibility lightly. I really like Springsteen and have followed his career for 40 odd years. A new patient who was a huge fan told me the other day he could no longer listen to Bruce as the lyrics were lost on him, he knew the songs inside out but he couldn’t appreciate them anymore, he found it too upsetting so had stopped trying to listen. If there was ever a challenge that I have to overcome it was that for him.

But everyone’s drivers are different. One patient told me it was hearing the snuffles of his new born baby boy, another that he didn’t know champagne bubbles made a popping noise. Someone else that his improved hearing saved his life, alerting him to a danger whilst rock face climbing. All different but for each person there is a single event that makes them stop and say a word of thanks. It is a real honour to partake in these patients enjoyment of their life.

I have been really lucky to have been an audiologist for 38 years, it has given me the opportunity to spend time one to one with a wide variety of people from every walk of life, from young children to those over 100, from rock stars to royalty, people who my life’s path would not have crossed normally. It has given me a rare opportunity to travel a road with people where we meet occasionally over many years where we share stories about our lives paths. How could you not love a profession that gives you such a buzz?

AP: I know you have many, but could you tell us about one of your memorable patients?

RB: Now that is really tough. There are so many people whose stories touched me, whose experiences have made me cry with emotion or made the hairs on my neck stand on end.

I suppose the thing that stands out as much as being a catalyst in helping people fulfil their own goals is the fact that I have met some truly amazing people.

Sir Hartley Shawcross really sticks out in my mind. He was the lead British Prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials whose passionate courtroom pleas helped to send leading Nazi’s including Hermann Goering & Joachim von Ribbentrop to the gallows. Just to be in the company of someone who I had learnt about in school was an honor but after we spent time discussing the senses of hearing and listening, I was fascinated as he told me tales of his life.

AP: Tell us about the 1-2 people in your life that were influential in your career choice/path? ?

RB: The first was my audiology mentor, Monty Shulberg, the man that sparked the passion inside me back in 1976. He was an audiologist, a maverick, a man who worked on the periphery of the audiology world and was considered an outsider by the establishment. He ran a small practice where he would break with convention and deal with deaf children in a different way, testing and fitting was unorthodox but the results he achieved were excellent. He told me that he wanted to train me and he took me under his wing whilst I studied and learnt. He was at his best when working with a pre-lingually deaf - he taught me how to communicate without using words or signing.

The second was an 18-month-old baby who I fitted with a body worn hearing aid very early on in my career. It was the day of switch on, the day when this child first connected with the world around her. When her blank expression turned to wide eyed amazement and then laughter and them stopped immediately when she heard herself laugh. The memory of that moment still brings a tear to my eye. It was that day that I thought what an amazing world I had stumbled across to work in, where I was capable of creating this reaction in another person and to realise the impact this could have on her life. To learn that sounds exists, that sound can be meaningful, to have the foundations to develop speech and language. There is a word, ‘awesome’, my American friends use (in my opinion) too freely but I think this is the right place for it. That experience for me was awesome and that’s why I get up every day and come to work. It drives me on to achieve new heights for my patients.

AP: Where would you like to see the profession of Audiology in 10 years?

RB: Audiology is a noble profession and I would like audiologists to appreciate how we have an ethical responsibility to our patients, our colleagues and ourselves to portray ourselves in only the best possible light. We all know what amazing things we can achieve in our work and my experiences are no different to all of you. It is our responsibility to promote our profession then we will always be relevant as the essential cog in the machine which provides hearingcare.

Today the talk is all about big box stores, hearing aid provision through the internet, vertical integration, retail channels, personal sound amplifiers and unbundling. I don’t have the luxury of having crystal ball but I know that I’ll still be here in 10 years as passionate as ever trying to change a life or two on the way.