Your Story (September 2011)

Peer-to-peer exchanges provide exceptional opportunities for knowledge transfer but more importantly for the discovery or rediscovery of camaraderie and common purpose within our profession. For this reason, ADA facilitates the sharing of member experiences through “Your Story”. This month we feature Chris Hamilton.

I am the current owner of The Hearing Center of Asheville (www.thehearingcenter.com), in Ashe-ville, NC, a patient-focused audiology clinic primarily providing hearing aid services. I began working here in the final stage of my externship year in 2006 following a combination of serendipity and persistence. One thing led to another and the opportunity to purchase the business arrived towards the end of 2008. As far as I can tell, I’m still open for business…

AP: Tell us a little about your professional journey and how you ended up in private practice.

CH: This was a short trip from the classroom into private practice. I had notions of private practice in my head as a student, partly through exposure to different practice settings and partly due to being independently minded (I think that’s the nice way of saying it). I had decided with my wife that we wanted to return home to raise a family and I had limited options for finishing my training and seeking employment. Following an unsuccessful stint at an ENT clinic I managed to secure the final stage of my training with a highly respected private practice audiologist (David Berkey, Au.D.). A more permanent position in the clinic serendipitously came available which I eagerly embraced. That was a short 5 years ago…

AP: Can you speak to your ideas on professional autonomy and what it means to you in your current position?

CH: Professional autonomy allows the professional to build the profession. As an audiologist, it allows me to build a superior patient experience and structure the clinic process in a way that maximizes outcomes. I am able to change and respond to the operating environment in a way that is best for the practice and for patients. Above all else, I am able to build the value of what I provide to patients and build the value of audiology as a profession.

AP: For audiologists in private practice, what do you see as the biggest challenge?

CH: I see the primary challenge for private practice audiology as the same primary challenge audiology faces as a profession nationally: establishing ourselves as valued professionals. We need to raise the value of what we do in diagnostics and in working with hearing aids so that the professional and intellectual components are valued. Looking at reimbursement rates from insurance providers and realizing we have no recognition for intellectual work in the eyes of Medicare leaves much to be desired. With hearing aids, having all of the value of our professional services wrapped into the price of a physical retail product presents an additional uphill battle.

As private practice audiologists, we must set the bar high and take necessary risks to further the profession which are not likely to be done in corporate or institutional settings. The position of gatekeepers of hearing healthcare is not something we will command by entitlement, rather by distinguishing ourselves as a highly valued contributor to the healthcare community.

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

CH: Build and use a support network. It seems obvious, but it has been easy as a rookie to get lost in the details and overwhelmed with the long to-do list. I may have grown a few early grey hairs as a result.

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

CH: Be diligent in seeking and pursuing a work environment that reinforces your aspirations as a professional. A litany of Rolling Stones songs is running through my head… Remember that what you want may not be what you need – eagerly grasp the challenges as they become available and listen for the things that resonate the strongest.

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

CH: I help people hear better. I reconnect people to the rich audio landscape of life. My lifelong fascination with sound can be applied in a helping profession and that is truly rewarding.

AP: What do you find the most challenging about being an audiologist in private practice?

CH: Striking balance. I am 2.5 years (and counting) into wearing the owner/audiologist mantle and feel like I am just now learning the first lessons in balancing time and energy in a healthy way. Learning to delegate responsibilities, allocate time to the different tasks of running a business and seeing patients, and somehow see my children before they graduate high school has been a tricky process.

AP: Tell us about your most memorable patient.

CH: I had the pleasure of working with a patient (in her 90s) that still wore cowboy boots and worked with horses and brought me a stunning Japanese watercolor painting she had done (still hanging on the clinic wall). She reminds me that behind each “patient” is a person that we connect with and build a relationship with, which is the bedrock of our business.

AP: Was there any one person in your life that was influential in your career choice/path?

CH: I took a class in my second year of undergraduate courses titled “Music and the Human Organism”. I had been weighing options for career paths at the time, deciding how I could weave sound or music into a future profession. The professors for the class were phenomenal; both were experimental musicians and progressive thinkers. That single class expanded my understanding of sound and how it influences people and was my first exposure to audiology as a career choice. That was the point at which I realized I could help people hear and there didn’t seem to be a better choice.

AP: When you are not busy seeing patients or running your business, what are some things you like to do in your spare time?

CH: My family (3 incredible girls and beautiful wife) is the happy focus of most of my non-work hours. I indulge in playing guitar or piano on occasion and, if I’m feeling really adventurous, field recording. Most recently I’ve been learning sound design for films which is an interesting parallel to what we do for patients every day. Free time for me is playgrounds, doll houses, and soundtracks!

AP: What’s one thing you want other audiologists to know about your practice or how you take care of your patients? CH: I love what I do and how I am able to help patients. Each patient is a new challenge and we have a remarkable range of tools and resources to help people hear their best. I think this bubbles to the surface with our practice and helps us raise the bar for audiology. I’d implore all of my colleagues to stay in touch with that core element, or if needed, rediscover it for themselves.