Hearing clinic adds house calls to its menu of services

George Perkins doesn’t have to worry about navigating his wheelchair into the offices of Columbia Basin Hearing Center to see his audiologist.

Since February, the 83-year-old meets with Neil Aiello from the comfort of his Kennewick home.

“Dr. Neil has been here every month checking on the quality – and he just left here by the way,” Perkins said in late April.

“We enjoy his visits so much. It’s a social and technical visit,” he said.

Aiello and his audiologist wife, Shannon Aiello, own Columbia Basin Hearing Center, which has offices in Kennewick and Walla Walla.

They recently launched a clinic within their clinic called Hear For You, offering hearing aid delivery services, telehearing appointments, mobile hearing care and curbside service.

Hitting the road

The pandemic got the husband-and-wife team thinking about how best to serve their homebound patients.

The idea bounced around Shannon’s mind the year prior because of the long-term relationships their clinic nurtures with patients, she said.

“From the happy retiree to the golden years, to having caregivers involved, to kids taking over to help with dementia, to hospice and end-of-life care, we see a lot of history with patients,” she said.

Shannon said they wanted a way to continue serving patients throughout the changes in their lives and thought a mobile clinic would be a great option, but at the time couldn’t think of a sustainable model to make it happen.

Then Covid-19 hit and it reprogrammed how people approached health care. The clinic closed for a couple of weeks, and when it did reopen, the Aiellos decided to go to their patients.

“It’s a privilege to be in their home. They treat me like family. It’s an awesome experience,” Neil said.

Soon the couple were exploring how to make home visits a permanent part of their practice. They launched the mobile clinic in February, repurposing a 2013 family sedan.

Neil uses a couple of handheld bags to carry in his laptop, an audiometer and other equipment to do in-home assessments and adjustments.

“Hearing aids are so much more than a widget,” Shannon said. “They have to be fine-tuned, they need adjustments, to be cleaned, they need follow-up care. For remote communities and seniors with no access, it is beyond exciting for possibilities of this clinic.”

Shannon said home-based visits also can benefit busy professionals. Instead of taking a half day off work, “we can work to take care of them with a remote adjustment or meet them where they prefer,” she said.

Senior patients don’t have to worry about coordinating a ride to the clinic with their family or Dial-A-Ride.

“We wanted to perfect it and offer the same level of service and care to our patients, not just during Covid, but into the future,” Shannon said.

Tech-savvy patients can hop on a Zoom call with the Aiellos and get real-time adjustments made to their hearing aids, thanks to Bluetooth technology, which connects their device to the internet.

Expanding boundaries

Since launching the mobile clinic, Neil spends about two days a week making house calls.

“In the past month, I’ve been to Pendelton, Weston, Athena, Walla Walla, Milton-Freewater, Kirkland, Mill Creek and the Tri-Cities of course,” he said.

The service is complimentary for patients who have hearing aids under warranty. After their warranty ends, there’s a $182 annual subscription for the mobile service.

“There’s no reason, honestly, we can’t go anywhere in the state,” Shannon said. “It’s exciting to remove the geographic barrier where you can help.”

Roy Waugh of Snohomish chose to get his hearing aid from Columbia Basin Hearing Center instead of a closer west-side clinic.

Waugh, 71, knew Neil’s father before he took over the family practice.

“I don’t like driving into Seattle and the other hearing aid people are nice enough, but they seem more about the sale and not the service,” said Waugh, who’s been wearing hearing aids for seven years.

Good customer service is Waugh’s love language.

“Large box stores – the prices might be a little better, but they have no service. I know a lot of people who get hearing aids and get frustrated and stop using them. I’m a service-oriented person and am willing to pay for that service,” he said.

After delivering and fitting Waugh’s new hearing aid, Neil called the next day to check on how he was doing. He made a few adjustments over the internet.

“I now have another appointment. He wants to tweak it in person and see how they’re doing. You can’t get service like that. It’s pretty special,” Waugh said.

His new device also is pretty special. In addition to its ability to be adjusted remotely, the device tracks brain and body activity, detects falls and can deliver reminders.

“It’s an amazing electronic device,” he said. “When you’ve got technology like this you do need a service provider to take care of it.”

Best of all, he can hear better.

“I’m hearing things I haven’t heard in years. I’m listening to the wind in the trees. I have been missing this for the last six years,” he said.

On a recent April afternoon, Neil traveled to Weston, Oregon, to visit a 104-year-old patient who is blind, immobile and has significant hearing loss. She’s been a patient for six years.

An important social sense

“Hearing is your most important social sense. … Our social abilities are limited when you cannot hear. We now know, and not just from Covid, but from longitudinal studies, that not hearing well means the brain doesn’t function as well, and it can affect cognition, dementia, Alzheimer’s, you name it. If you don’t use it, you lose it,” Neil said.

The mobile clinic also had an unexpected benefit for Neil, who has been practicing for 29 years. He’s enjoyed getting out of the office and seeing patients in their homes.

“He thrives on people and relationships. Put him in their environment and it’s a great combination,” Shannon said.

Audiologists Neil and Shannon Aiello own Columbia Basin Hearing Center, which has offices in Kennewick and Walla Walla. (Courtesy Columbia Basin Hearing Center)

Perkins was the Aiellos’ first patient to use the mobile clinic.

He said having properly working and fitting hearing aids has made a huge difference in his life.

He got his first hearing aids in 2004 but left them at a Los Angeles hotel. He replaced them with aids from another source and “wore them until I couldn’t stand them anymore,” he said.

He’s happier with his new pair from Columbia Basin Hearing Center.

“I use them all the time. I’m in love with the darn things for Audible. The tonal quality is so good. The battery life is so good. I use them extensively for Audible, use it for music and, of course, for hearing during the day.”

Taking care of hearing health is as important as taking care of your teeth and the rest of your body, the Aiellos said.

“Hearing loss is usually a very slow onset and usually people don’t notice. It’s usually other people who notice first. Wearing masks has really amplified how important hearing is and how difficult it is for people with normal hearing and mild hearing loss to hear,” Neil said.

SearchColumbia Basin Hearing Center: 4015 W. Clearwater Ave., Kennewick; 509-736-4005; columbiabasinhearing.com.

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