Q&A: Stephen Bannister

Posted in Audiology on March 07, 2017
Author: Sam Reed

Describe your role in the practice as a hearing aid dispenser

Specsavers Hearcare model usually employs a ‘Hub’ and ‘Spoke’ set up. In a hub location, demand is often greater compared to a spoke – which is still very busy but would not
usually command testing every day of the week. We currently run a combined 18 clinics
a week and seven of those are in spoke locations. I test once in each location and also
service domiciliary home visits.

A normal testing day will consist of new assessments, issuing patients with appropriate
hearing aids, follow ups, ongoing rehabilitation, service calls and even coaching
on how to use and maintain the hearing aids to get the best out of them.

Why did you decide to make the transition from optical to hearing?

I have been working in Specsavers since 1998 as a dispensing optician and contact lens optician. The past 10 years in optics saw me only practicing as a contact lens optician and I really did enjoy my time there.

Around three years ago Specsavers wrote to all the store directors explaining the current shortage in the UK of qualified hearing aid dispensers. My directors, Imran Khan and Reehan Qureishy, came to me with the opportunity. They asked if it would be something of interest as a personal progression eventually leading to directorship, and they funded the whole course for me through sponsorship.

While my ambition was always directorship, I feel that you can never have too many strings to your bow and hearcare was a relatively new venture that was still largely untapped and growing. I did some research and it was listed as one of the most secure and growing industries in the UK. I think it was listed as the highest outside of finance or IT careers. Another key selling point for me was the demand in our store as the local hospitals shut their audiology departments creating instant demand.

After a discussion with my family I decided to take Specsavers up on their kind offer.

How did you find the training and how did you fit this around everyday work?

During the course I still worked as a CLO three days a week and as a trainee hearing aid dispenser one day as I also have a young family and Monday was my day to look after the children.

The course at Leicester DeMontfort was officially full time. This meant approximately 12 weeks away in one week blocks over 15 months, interspersed with exams. The modules were online and practical learning was mostly done on the job. I tried to do all study on my one day off and in the evenings once they were asleep.

It was daunting at first as it was a big change. It required a lot of planning and organising as I was returning to studying after a long absence. Breaking the course down into small achievable targets and always asking for help where needed from the lecturers was key. Once I put the structures in place, it didn’t seem as daunting as I found it at first.

What new challenges and opportunities does working in hear care bring?

I had worked with eyes since 1997 and contact lenses since 2003 so it was a great opportunity to study something new and understand a completely different biological structure.

While in the fitting of contact lenses there are obvious variances in fittings, materials and shape, etc, the world of hearing care has vastly more variances regarding hearing aid technology. All the manufacturers use different terminology and employ different techniques to fit their products.

The choices you make as a clinician often varies even more greatly. Added to this, technology moves at a fast pace and even in the NHS there seems to be a new model every year, each with its own parameters.

Once you get your head around these differences the one constant is the patients, and how we need to communicate with them. My experience of optics helped greatly with this. The appointment time is longer but the ground that is needed to cover is more in depth and nuanced.

What have been the negatives of changing your job role?

There was understandably an initial financial hit with having to become a student again, and you can’t be paid the same as a CLO when you are a trainee hearing aid dispenser. I was concerned about having a family to support but overall it was a family decision and they have been a constant source of encouragement.

Even though I was used to seeing 25 to 30 patients a day as a CLO, having 30 minutes to one hour appointments as a hearing aid dispenser was a change of pace. It is also often more tiring, although I’m yet to understand why.

Understanding the hearing aid manufacturer’s technical language was certainly something to adjust to. They often use different proprietary terms to describe their products, but in some instances it may be the same feature.

My local reps were very helpful and supportive. The industry could benefit by having an agreement between the manufactures to provide a ‘bible’ of details of all the hearing aids, much like the ACLM manual.

What have you found most difficult and how did you cope?

Going from a position where I felt very comfortable and confident in my knowledge and had built an excellent patient base to something completely new was initially very daunting, and there were times in the very early days where I questioned my decision.

These passed quickly and I soon settled and found a rhythm – albeit a louder one. It is vital to seek and accept all help offered be it from manufacturer reps, colleagues, online learning, tutors or company support and expertise. You will always learn something new every day.

Did you continuing seeing many of your optical patients as hearing patients?

There are some which have brought family members to me as they used to see me and trusted me for their contact lenses – always a nice compliment. As I got deeper into my course there was a transition from optics to audiology, there were some days where I did a split of half contact lenses and half hearing aids.

You always had to explain they were separate qualifications otherwise I felt like it would give the appearance I was a ‘jack-of-all-trades’.

Are patients more aware of the importance of good hearing or good vision?

I think awareness of vision is a lot greater. Not only are hearcare patients unaware due to the way hearing loss can develop gradually, but there is also denial. It is sometimes quoted that it takes 10 years for the average patient to accept and take ownership of their hearing loss.

Family members tend to be accused of mumbling and TV programmes of having poor sound quality. Patients sometimes need convincing that their ears may be the problem.

What are the barriers for patients in booking a hearing test?

Patients often need help in accepting that they may have a hearing problem. We need to be sensitive to their objections as they often express disbelief and feeling like they are losing independence and it is the last signifier of old age.

We need to be clear when we are in discovery mode, and make the transition to offering help carefully. It really helps if patients bring support with them as other people can offer insights you may miss; it also helps the patient take ownership of their problem.

Would you recommend a move into audiology for other dispensing opticians?

If you would be up for a new challenge, and would like to see the difference you can genuinely make to someone life, then yes. It is heart warming to see people’s faces when they hear something not heard for many years, even something as simple as the voices of their grandchildren or birdsong. You have to be prepared to be challenged in every way by technology and patients alike but the all round rewards are worth it.

I was fortunate enough to go straight from passing as an audiologist to the Institute of Leadership & Management Level 3 course, to Specsavers Pathway. Within two years of passing the hearing aid dispenser course, I am now a director, and – even though I never thought I’d say it if you asked me five years ago – I haven’t looked back.

Credit: Optician Magazine (This interview first appeared in Opticianonline.net)