Vol. 12 • Issue 1 • Page 18
Most audiologists have a personal experience or connection that drew them to the field, reasons Ronna Fisher, AuD, FAAA, owner of the Chicago-based Hearing Health Center. For her, it was a desire to cure her dad.
"My father had rheumatic fever as a child. It left him with a defective heart and a substantial high-frequency hearing loss," she explains. "Some of my earliest memories are of my parents fighting because my dad wouldn't answer and my mother thought he was ignoring her. It scared me when they argued, and I always felt bad because it wasn't his fault. But 5 minutes later, I'd get angry when it was me he didn't answer."
As a girl, she would cringe when she'd bring friends home and they could hear the TV blaring while still outside. She'd resent having to repeat herself multiple times for her father to hear. (As a teen, she'd just as soon dismiss him with an impatient "forget it" than repeat the story again.) At the same time, it wasn't uncommon for her to jump to his aid in social settings, trying to help him when he'd missed the punch line of a joke or provided an inappropriate answer to a question he'd misheard.
"Sympathy, anger, frustration, embarrassment, resentment-and that's just what I was experiencing every day," Dr. Fisher reflects. "I didn't even think about what my dad was going through."
Doctors said nothing would help. Years later, while studying at the University of Pittsburgh and working at a Veterans Administration facility, the determined daughter-turned-audiology-grad-student realized otherwise.
"I was flabbergasted to learn that my father's doctors were wrong. Hearing aids did help," says Dr. Fisher. "And the profound difference they made in the lives of my patients was astounding."
She was hooked. Although Dr. Fisher never had the chance to cure her father, who at age 53 died during heart surgery while she was still in grad school, the opportunity to help others fueled the audiologist with the drive to establish and lead a practice that, over the past 25 years, has proven itself a pioneer.
But the road was a long one. When she finished her master's level audiology degree, the professional governing association (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association) prohibited audiologists from directly dispensing hearing instruments. Fisher didn't care. "I loved developing long-term relationships with patients and I loved hearing aids, "she recalls. In 1981, she moved from Pittsburgh to Chicago to join a large dispensing practice owned by a hearing aid dealer. Labeled "immoral" by her peers and "incompetent" by her association, Fisher was prepared to fight. Just prior to filing a lawsuit against the association, the code of ethics was changed to include the dispensing and fitting of hearing instruments within an audiologist's scope of practice.
Even so, Dr. Fisher didn't initially set out to open her own practice.
"I knew nothing about running a business, wasn't trained to do it and didn't want the responsibilities entailed in ownership. I was very dedicated to the companies for whom I worked," she says.
But eventually the idea of her own practice began to have appeal. "In addition to seeing patients, I began creating and implementing innovative ideas, which substantially increased revenue. And, frankly, I was never rewarded or satisfactorily compensated for it. I figured if I was going to work so hard, I might as well do it for myself."
Helping her along was patient-turned-friend A.N. Pritzker, the founder of the Hyatt Hotel chain. She met Pritzker soon after moving to Chicago.
"One of the things he liked best about me was that I didn't treat him any differently than anyone else," Dr. Fisher says. "One day, he walked into the office with his hearing aids inserted upside down. I shook my head and said, 'I can't believe you are one of the smartest and richest men in the world. You started a multi-billion dollar corporation, and you can't even put your hearing aids in the right way. That's pathetic.'
"He laughed and then gave me all the money I needed to start my own business," says Dr. Fisher, who, with a $10,000 gift and Pritzker co-sign, had little need for Small Business Administration loans. "He introduced me to a lot of big shots and influential people."
Others, she met on her own. Officials at Chicago HMO, now United Healthcare, became familiar with the audiologist when she contacted them in 1982 and convinced them to contract her services.
"I showed them how much money they could save by referring patients directly to me," she remembers. "I was probably the first audiologist in the country to sign a contract with a major insurance company."
Later, when her employer sold the practice to another employee, the HMO's director offered Dr. Fisher space of her own in a multi-physician office. The original Hearing Health Center, established in 1984, consisted of one room with a booth, audiometer, an impedance bridge-and an audiologist with a willingness to work.
The practice grew and expanded, but not according to any specific plans or timetable set by Dr. Fisher.
"I really didn't have any plans for growing, but I can't seem to pass up a golden opportunity," she admits. "When a major suburban hospital wanted to start an audiology department, I presented a proposal and was awarded the contract. Several doctors approached me over the years to provide audiology in their practices, and I took advantage of those with whom I thought the relationship would be mutually beneficial."
As technology progressed, so did the services offered at Hearing Health Center. Dr. Fisher says she was the first audiologist in the country to fit a completely-in-the-canal hearing instrument and introduced digital technology in Chicago a year before other practices began offering it. And her staff was one of the first outside California to be trained in and fit InSound Medical's Lyric hearing aid.
"I've always been an early adopter," says Dr. Fisher. "I'm one of those people who will jump on the bandwagon as soon as I hear about something new or perceive a need I think we can fulfill."
When she returned to school in 2002 to earn her AuD, the audiologist took several vestibular courses and learned about advances in testing, diagnosis and treatment of balance and dizziness issues. The possibilities hit home.
"I thought of the many patients I had seen over the years who were active, vibrant and spirited when I first saw them and who were now slow and timid and walking with canes because they had fallen," she says. "It must have sparked some memory of my father, because I suddenly realized that I could 'cure' them."
The audiologist expanded her Naperville office, bought the latest equipment, had her staff attend "every diagnostic and rehabilitation course known to man," and opened the Center for Balance Disorders. She marketed the facility to physicians, the community and on TV, and drew patients from the immediate area and throughout the Midwest.
Today, Hearing Health Center is comprised of four main offices and two satellite sites, and its reach extends throughout Chicagoland. Dr. Fisher employs six other audiologists, offers services that range from assessments and dispensing to treating balance disorders, and draws a varied clientele. Long-time patients include former Chicago Bulls player and three-time NBA champion Bob Love and Marv Levy, former head coach for the Buffalo Bills and the only coach in history to lead a team to four consecutive Super Bowl appearances.
"He (Levy) always tells me that he is amazed at the extent I am willing to go for my patients," says Dr. Fisher, who worked with Levy over the course of years to find the best hearing aid to fit his professional and personal life. "We tried every technology available. Then 3 months ago, Marv and his wife came to the office, kissed and hugged me and told me I'd worked a miracle. They had just dined in one of the noisiest restaurants in Chicago with four other couples, and he heard every word."
The audiologist doesn't reserve special care for big-name patients. Dr. Fisher prides herself on treating every patient like a VIP, whether a suburban soccer mom or a city stockbroker.
"Our downtown office is much more eclectic in terms of patients," says the audiologist. "The CEO from a major corporation can be sitting next to an inmate in an orange jumpsuit that just came from the county jail. I treat all patients the same."
Satisfied patients have been a key to her success, helping spread word of her practice far more effectively than advertising, she says. Just ask, and many will mention friends or family who could benefit from audiological care.
Over the years, others haven't always embraced her enthusiastic vision. But Dr. Fisher hasn't let that stop her.
"The most significant challenge I encountered was the considerable resistance from staff and coworkers to change," she admits. "There were audiologists who did not want to expand their knowledge and scope of practice, and there were support staff unwilling to undertake the added responsibility of new forms, questionnaires and billing. You have to be willing to let go of long-time-and even loyal-employees who don't share your vision."
Fisher says she now has a great staff. "It took a long time to find team members that share my passion and quest for excellence. Everyone is committed to going above and beyond to make sure each patient is happy.
Dr. Fisher recently hired an experienced vice president of operations who is helping add structure to the business.
"He couldn't believe I was running a successful business with virtually no formal structure or systems in place," she says. "He has taught me the necessity and ultimate benefits of implementing processes, practice policies and standard procedures. Had I done this years ago, I could have avoided a lot of headaches and wrong hires and saved myself a lot of aggravation."
Audiologists at Hearing Health Center have formulated standard testing protocols, hearing aid demo procedures and presentation methods. Her front-end staff has undergone extensive customer service training. ("You will hear the smile in their voices every time they say hello," declares Dr. Fisher.) And the practice itself is set to undergo an image update in terms of message, marketing and office décor to reflect a consumer-centric mindset.
All this is in preparation for a whole new generation of patients in need of hearing assistance. What she wants them to understand is this: Hearing aids don't make you older. They make you younger and allow you to experience the passion and intensity you've had your entire life.
"Hearing Health Center has always been a pioneer in this industry," says Dr. Fisher. "Now, the opportunities have never been greater-but only if we continue that pioneering tradition and stay ahead of the curve."
Jolynn Tumolo is a freelance writer in Morgantown, PA.