Audiologist Relishes Mentoring Role at Rush

Our Q&A with Patricia McCarthy, PhD, a professor of audiology at Rush University, is part of a series celebrating women in medicine.

How and why did you get into audiology?

I recall vividly the exact moment when I decided to pursue audiology as a profession.  I was a junior in college and still playing around with my major. I was considering a major in speech-language pathology and was required to take an audiology course. As I walked home after the second meeting of “Introduction to Audiology,” it struck me that audiology was the perfect match for me.  I was 21 years old and I have never looked back.

I suspect I was attracted to audiology because of its rehabilitative component. While the diagnostic aspect of audiology is critical to hearing health care, I was attracted to the patient-centered treatment part of audiologists’ scope of practice.

It is often said that hearing loss doesn’t just affect the person with hearing loss, it affects the whole family. Furthermore, hearing loss can have an effect on every aspect of a person’s life: social, emotional, occupational, psychological, etc. Consequently, what happens after the diagnosis of hearing loss is critical. Individualized treatment planning that includes the patient’s communication partners makes the difference in whether or not the individual can “live well” with hearing loss.

What changes have you witnessed in health care or in your field of practice?

Of course, every health care profession has evolved significantly as the result of the technology boom of the last few decades. But concurrently, I have witnessed a “back to the future” change in audiology that has impacted patient care significantly. Audiology only began as a profession after World War II; large numbers of veterans with hearing loss were returning from the war with significant communication problems. As a result, audiologists developed treatment methods that focused on the individual’s communication function. Over the next few decades, however, audiologists’ practices began to focus on sophisticated diagnostic methods and modern hearing aids; rehabilitation began to take a back seat. But by the end of the 20th century, audiologists recognized that state-of-the art diagnostic methods and exquisite hearing aids were not enough. Patients with hearing loss wanted and needed more.

High-end hearing aids are not enough to allow a person with hearing loss to communicate better; patients and their communication partners need individualized strategies to improve communication. Consequently, audiology has returned to its roots. Audiologists are focusing on the human dynamics of hearing loss and developing patient-centered treatment plans rather than relying on technology to “fix” communication problems. Clearly, patients and their communication partners are benefiting from this refocusing of the profession.

What advice do you have for prospective female practitioners in audiology services?

Interestingly, the majority of audiologists at this point in time are females. Audiology is a doctoral-level profession that requires completion of a rigorous four-year curriculum that includes coursework and multiple clinical rotations. I have been in academia for three decades, and I continue to be impressed with the bright, creative, energetic women who enter the field. I believe audiology attracts these extremely capable, bright women because it requires a strong science background but also demands excellent, caring people-skills

In what ways have embraced diversity in your field of practice?

Creating diversity in the audiology profession is an ongoing challenge. The profession tends to be largely female and Caucasian. However, at Rush University we have been very fortunate to draw a quite diverse student population. Students from differing backgrounds feel comfortable in the Rush milieu. Consequently, we are really leading the way in educating audiologists from diverse groups.

What have you learned from a particular female role-model?

When I was in graduate school, there were only a few doctoral-level female audiologists and/or professors. My mentors were all remarkable men so I truly had to find my own way as a professional woman in the 1970s.  Balancing professional obligations with family was my biggest challenge. Many young professional women these days likely had mothers and/or other female role models who exemplify that critical professional-personal balance.

Do you consider yourself a role model or mentor?

I would love to think that I have had an influence on the many students I have taught, supervised, advised and counseled over the past three decades. My position as a teacher-practitioner at Rush has allowed me to work with scores of bright young female students and new professionals. That is my favorite part of my position at Rush. I hope to continue in that role for many years to come!

The Library of Rush University Medical Center is hosting the traveling exhibit from the National Library of Medicine, “Changing the Face of Medicine: Celebrating American Women Physicians,” through Jan. 28. The exhibit is located in the fourth-floor lobby of the Atrium Building.

Patricia McCarthy, PhD, is a professor of audiology at Rush University and is on the communicative disorders team at Rush University Medical Center.

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