issue Summer 2023

Prioritizing Empathy

By Dawn Rhodes
Ally Brown, PharmD ’22
Photo by Michael R. Schmidt

Pharmacist With Hearing Loss Supports Patients With Disabilities:

Ally Brown, PharmD ’22, navigated a challenging medical condition as she trained to become a pharmacist — an experience that informs a people-focused mission to improve health care.

Dr. Brown is deaf, not having been formally diagnosed with hearing loss until adulthood. As a patient, she sometimes had physicians who rushed through appointments, unable or unwilling to try different methods of communicating with her to ensure her disability didn’t interfere with treatment.

She’s trying to change that as a provider, and is pushing for more training and awareness to give quality care to patients across a range of unique abilities.

“Someone has to advocate for the patients. Because without (that), we have a lot of patients that are not getting the best health care and have worse health outcomes.”

“We do have a lot of nurses, doctors, pharmacists and other healthcare providers; the thing we often lack in health care is providers who really know how to work with people,” Dr. Brown said. “Someone has to advocate for the patients. Because without (that), we have a lot of patients that are not getting the best health care and have worse health outcomes.”

Originally from Maryland, Dr. Brown attended a biomedical science high school and studied public health science at the University of Maryland. She was born with hearing loss, but she did not initially know that. She said her condition worsened as she got older while she rationalized why she struggled to hear.

“By the time I got to undergrad, it was starting to get really bad,” Dr. Brown said. “I was just like, ‘Oh, you know, I just can’t hear because normally my hair is curly … so my hair is blocking my ear,’ or something like that.”

She adjusted how she handled conversations and her studies, like changing where she sat in classes. She avoided going to places like cafes where it would be difficult to understand people.

Around the time she was 18, her grandmother pushed Dr. Brown to have her hearing examined, which showed she had mild to moderate hearing loss, she said. She was given a hearing aid.

Still, her condition worsened as she studied pharmacy at 69ɫƬ, “to the point where it was just really, really hard to go to class and go to appointments,” Dr. Brown said. She’d long relied on lip reading to understand people, but the pandemic shutting down in-person interactions took away that key form of communication. Doctors’ appointments were also a struggle.

“Talking louder doesn’t actually help the person hear better, so they’re getting stuck on what to do,” Dr. Brown said. “So it makes me feel discouraged from going to the doctor.”

As she continued training as a pharmacist, she used that knowledge to advocate for herself as a patient.

“I’m very understanding as a patient,” she said, “but when you’re a provider at the same time, I know what they’re doing and talking about.”

Dr. Brown received a cochlear implant in June 2022, she said, and her experiences as both a patient and provider helped her spot gaps in her medical training — there would rarely be a patient who had hearing loss, blindness or other unique abilities in addition to the illness for which they sought treatment.

In a lecture at 69ɫƬ in April, Dr. Brown detailed why medical students need better training to work with patients with disabilities, and how doctors can spot and break down barriers to giving quality health care to those patients.

“I find the biggest problems can stem from communication. A lot of it is that doctors are uncomfortable or not trained or you don’t have exposure. Sometimes it’s bias, or things like that,” Dr. Brown said. “But the biggest way to combat that is trying to be creative and thinking outside the box. Start educating students at the medical school level, giving them exposure to these patients so they know how to work with them. If they don’t know their options, there’s not much that they can do to help them.”

Having more providers with unique abilities also could help, so they can bring their experiences to clinical practice and train future doctors to give better care, Dr. Brown said. It can be challenging being a doctor with a unique ability, but she sees how it makes a difference.

“More people are accepting and willing to work with you than people who are not,” she said. “There are times where I’ve had patients who are like, ‘I’m glad that we have a doctor who’s deaf, because now we have people who understand. We need people like you.’”

Dawn Rhodes is a Chicago-based writer and editor. She’s worked in journalism for more than a decade.