In the Service of Others: An Interview with Kamal Elliot, AuD By Bre Myers, AuD, PhD
Kamal Elliot, AuD, is a person to be admired. Her desire and dedication to providing the best quality of care led her on journeys into private practice ownership as well as multiple international and local humanitarian missions. She has served on state and national audiology organization boards. Recently, I was fortunate to catch up with Dr. Elliot.
BM: Thank you for sharing your experiences both as a private practice owner and as a humanitarian audiologist with readers. First, let’s start with your role as a private practice owner. When and why did you establish A&E Audiology?
KE: I moved to Lancaster in 1999 and worked with two ENT physicians for about a year. Before that, I worked in a variety of settings including a school district, children’s hospital, and ENT setting. I started to lose my love for audiology because I didn’t feel that I could provide the standard of care that my patients deserved in the ENT setting. In the fall of 2000, I went to the Pennsylvania Academy of Audiology meeting and expressed my dissatisfaction with my professional life to private practice owner, Robert Wolfe, AuD. He said, “Why don’t you start your practice and provide care the way you think it should be delivered?” That set off a spark, and when I came back from that meeting, I resigned my position at the ENT office and started my own practice from scratch in January 2001.
BM: That was a bold move! However, I suspect that the sentiment of not providing the quality of care patients deserve is the raison dếtre of many audiologists who contemplate either attrition from the field or building their practice. Starting a practice from scratch after just having moved to the area must have required nerves of steel. What were some of the most significant hurdles you faced while building your practice?
KE: My education in audiology did not prepare me for starting and running a business. Fortunately, I found an organization called SCORE which consists of retired business executives who volunteer their time to help people start and run small businesses. My SCORE mentors have been instrumental in not only helping me with many aspects of starting my business including how to write a business plan, negotiate a lease, and create a marketing plan but also with how to manage growth and plan for success as my business grew.
BM: As your practice matured where there any additional challenges you faced?
KE: Other hurdles included managing rapid growth and learning how to manage multiple offices and employees. Also, learning how to balance time between patient care and running the business can be a challenge for most business owners.
BM: Creating and sustaining a successful private is a huge accomplishment that requires steadfast care. I think that many of us could stop there and be quite satisfied with what we had created and the services we were providing. What motivated you to get involved with humanitarian efforts in audiology?
KE: Mahatma Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
I went on my first humanitarian trip in 2003 and when I saw my first “hearing smile,” I was hooked. A hearing smile is a way a person’s face lights up when they hear for the first time.
About three years ago, my business had grown to 3 locations, and there were five audiologists working at my practice. So, I was able to step back and re-evaluate my path forward, and I decided that until that point in my life I had focused mostly on achievement and success which was very rewarding. But I still felt something was lacking so I decided to focus on giving which I felt would lead to more fulfillment. That was a great decision.
BM: There is such a truth to that sentiment, and it is reminiscent of the Beatles’ lyric “In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Knowing that you have made an impact by providing a service is uplifting. Seeing patients lives improved on a daily basis is what keeps many of us going, I think. There is a notion that humanitarian audiology requires travel to developing countries, which may be daunting or just not possible for some who have a desire to give. Can you talk about your experience with local and stateside humanitarian efforts?
KE: With the help of my son, Eric Elliot, who is also managing director of A&E Audiology, we started a local non-profit hearing clinic A&E Hearing Connection this year to provide hearing healthcare to people who are living in poverty in our local community. Recently I went to Utah to work with a community of isolated and largely ignored Native Americans who are living in deplorable conditions to bring them the gift of hearing. And I just returned from my 10th international humanitarian trip. So, if you have a passion for giving, you can do it right in your own backyard. In my case, I love to travel, and so the humanitarian trips allow me to combine my love of travel with my love of audiology.
BM: That sounds like a fantastic combination with infinite possibilities. There are several humanitarian groups that organize programs within and outside the United States. What organizations have you worked with in these mission trips?
KE: In 2014, I joined a group called Entheos Audiology Cooperative. It was founded by a wonderful woman, Nora Stewart, who owns a private audiology practice with her husband Ken Stewart in Fort Wayne, Indiana. They started Entheos Audiology Cooperative, with the intention of helping private practice owners thrive in an increasingly challenging marketplace.
I’ve met some of the brightest private practice owners in the industry through this group. Similar to the group “Doctors without Borders’ we have traveled to countries like Haiti, Jordan, Guatemala, Ecuador, Zambia, Mozambique and West Bank to volunteer to share our gifts and talents by providing hearing healthcare and hearing aids. We partner with non-profit organizations who have boots on the ground in these countries. They help connect us with the people who need our help and make sure we are safe and well cared for while visiting their country.
BM: Perhaps one of the biggest criticisms I have heard regarding humanitarian efforts is sustainability. What happens in the days, months years after a well-meaning group has come in and provided a service and most likely fit hearing aids to a percentage of the population? How are your efforts sustained after you leave an area?
KE: Sustainability is an important goal for our humanitarian projects. The last thing we want to do is to go into a developing country, wave our magical audiology wand, give people the experience of hearing for a few weeks and then if the hearing aid stops working, they are back to square one.
In Zambia, Africa, we are training a local person Sammy who expressed an interest in learning about audiology. Each time we go there, we spend time preparing him, and we are looking into developing more extensive training materials and resources for this purpose.
In Guatemala, we are working with a nurse who does follow up and troubleshooting. She has been involved in three of our trips and is learning more each time. In Mozambique, we teamed up with a local hospital who had an audiology department with sound booths and audiometers but no hearing aids. It is a work in progress but sustainability is essential to us, and we are making good strides in this direction.
BM: It does seem like a work in progress, and I am happy to know that there are people like you leading the way in this effort. What advice do you have for those interested in humanitarian work or private practice?
KE: I have been able to successfully combine my love of audiology with my love of travel and my desire to give back, and I’m happy to share how to do that with other audiologists. I love serving patients in my private practice, and it has grown and thrived over the past 17 years which has enabled me to be in a position to give back in an even more significant way.
We are working on a new initiative at my private practice where every time a patient purchases hearing aids, we give one to a person in need. We just started this in the second quarter of 2017, and it has energized our team and ignited more passion in all of us. We fit some of these “give back” hearing aids at our local non-profit clinic that we started earlier this year, took some to Utah recently and we also took some to Ecuador in August. It was amazing to know that thanks to the efforts of my staff and our patients, we were able to give away brand new excellent quality hearing aids to some needy people. I’m happy to share how this works with other practice owners as I believe this is such a wonderful way to have a higher impact.
The conversation in our industry tends to be negative. When you read an article online, there is a lot of criticism of hearing aids. Many people who come into our office don’t want hearing aids, and if they do, they don’t like the cost, or they don’t fully appreciate what we do for them at first until we educate them. Audiologists tend to be cast as the villains in the news, “overcharging patients for hearing aids” and even our own profession cannot agree on what is the most efficient and best way to work together to create positive change in our industry.
I would like to change that conversation and to start focusing on how what we do matters so much. How we improve people’s lives through better hearing and how valuable our services are. Let’s talk about how beautiful it is to be able to hear and participate in conversations. Without hearing aids and the professionals who fit them, we could not make such a difference. When I travel to countries where there is no access to hearing care, people are so appreciative of what we do. Hearing gives us a connection, a child who is born with hearing loss, cannot learn to talk, or to read and learn and achieve their potential until we fit them with hearing aids or cochlear implants (I’m not including deaf people in this who learn through sign language). Through hearing, we give people a voice, and we provide them with the opportunity to develop their potential. Let’s turn our attention to focusing on these wonderful things instead.
BM: Dr. Elliot, I would like to thank you again for taking the time to share your incredible story of passion and commitment to the field of audiology and the patients you serve around the world.
Bre Myers, AuD, PhD, is an associate editor of Audiology Today and www.audiology.org.