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Audiology Student Helps Underserved Areas

It started nearly a year ago when Rachel Fryatt attended an information session hosted by the Pittsburgh Schweitzer Fellows Program. She took a keen interest in the Schweitzer mission, which challenges graduate students to address health-related disparities in underserved populations.

Fryatt immediately approached Elaine Mormer, associate professor and clinical education coordinator in the Department of Communication Science and Disorders (CSD), with an idea for a community service project that would provide audiology services to underserved children and adults who have hearing loss. After some research into possible clinical sites, they decided on the Birmingham Free Clinic, a walk-in facility sponsored by the Program for Health Care to Underserved Populations and The Salvation Army.

Fryatt also contacted the UPMC Center for Audiology and Hearing Aids to see what resources might be available to her. As it turned out, the otolaryngology residents who donate medical services at the Birmingham Free Clinic were in great need of an onsite audiologist to support their care.

Meanwhile, Fryatt also began the rigorous process of applying for a Schweitzer fellowship.

Executive Director Joan Haley says the Pittsburgh Schweitzer Fellows Program never had an applicant from the field of audiology before. “We were delighted that Rachel applied,” remarks Haley. “She clearly has a passion for her work and for helping others.

“From day one Rachel has been educating all of us on the importance of hearing loss and how it impacts so many other aspects of a person’s health and well-being,” Haley continues.

In April, Fryatt officially became a Schweitzer Fellow and started the Hearing Education and Resources for Underserved Populations (HEAR-UP) project at the Birmingham Free Clinic.

Bringing audiology services to Birmingham has been one of those wonderfully seamless transitions and quick startups for our clinic. This is absolutely due to Rachel and the leadership and faculty from Pitt and UPMC.

Mary Herbert, clinical director of the Birmingham Free Clinic

Fryatt visits the clinic once a month to perform hearing tests, counsel patients on hearing loss and fit them for a hearing device if necessary. The results have been gratifying.

“All of the patients are uninsured,” reports Fryatt. “Many are immigrants who need interpreters to translate their health care concerns. By providing them with hearing devices, they have a much greater chance of understanding their health care providers and being compliant with their instructions for care.”

“Hearing issues are something that many of our patients likely don’t or can’t prioritize over other medical or psycho-social issues in their lives,” says Mary Herbert, clinical director of the Birmingham Free Clinic. “To be able to offer this service so comprehensively has given us another way to improve our patients’ quality of life.”

When Fryatt first came to the clinic, she created a flyer to let patients know that audiology services were available. A few months later, she was booked every 15 minutes of her day.

UPMC Audiologist Kathleen Coyan supervises Fryatt at the Birmingham Free Clinic. “We often work in the same room, but have started to split up because our patient volume has increased,” says Coyan. “I have confidence in her because she is a wonderful clinician.”

“Rachel is very kind, professional and empathetic to our patients,” adds Herbert.

Although she is only at the clinic one day a month, Fryatt is gaining an appreciation for the interdisciplinary nature of health care. “This experience has opened my eyes to the bigger issues that exist for patients,” explains Fryatt. “It puts everything into perspective.”

“Through Rachel’s dogged determination, resources have been donated so that diagnostic hearing testing and hearing aid services are now provided at no charge to patients at the Birmingham clinic,” Mormer reports. Fryatt received support in these efforts from CSD Associate Professor Catherine Palmer, who also directs audiology services across UPMC facilities. “Additionally, Rachel’s plan will provide new service learning and clinical practicum experiences for graduate students in our program. In this way, the program will remain sustainable long after Rachel has graduated.”

“Bringing audiology services to Birmingham has been one of those wonderfully seamless transitions and quick startups for our clinic. This is absolutely due to Rachel and the leadership and faculty from Pitt and UPMC. They were so excited to collaborate and serve the community. It was a great fit and we look forward to evolving this collaboration further,” concludes Herbert.

This story first appeared in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences' FACETS magazine.