One of First Deaf Physicians in U.S. Overcomes Adversity, Helps Others Excel

Reprinted from the winter 2017-2018 issue of Michigan Family Physician.
by Dana Lawrence, MAFP Director of Communications

Dr. Philip Zazove has a cochlear implant—a device surgically implanted in the ear—that helps him pick up sound. He is pictured here with a girl whose cochlear implant is in the opposite ear as his.

When asked which is worse, being blind or deaf, Hellen Keller identified deafness “because it cuts you off from people, whereas blindness just cuts you off from things.”
Philip Zazove, MD (Ann Arbor), professor and George A. Dean, MD Chair of Family Medicine at University of Michigan Medical School, understands this intimately. He was diagnosed at the age of four with profound hearing loss—a disability whose impact, he explains, is often underestimated by people who can hear and miscalculated and underdiagnosed by many physicians.
The health implications of hearing loss and how best to care for Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH) patients has been the focus of a wide body of Dr. Zazove’s research. His findings are nationally recognized, not only for changing how physicians deliver care to the DHH population, but also for how Family Physicians and other healthcare professionals are trained. Today he serves on an expert task force convened by the Association of Academic Physiatrists that recommends updating medical school admission technical standards to facilitate the inclusion of students with disabilities.  

DHH Patients at Risk of Healthcare Disparities

“People with hearing loss, regardless of severity, are at higher risk for cognitive decline, depression, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease. They are also more likely to receive lower quality care,” said Dr. Zazove.
He credits this disparity to the dearth of education on treating hearing loss in medical school curriculum. This, he believes, is compounded by many physicians’ discomfort in caring for DHH patients, in part due to the communication challenges that hearing loss creates.
Communication challenges and others’ misconceptions about what he could do are substantial barriers that Dr. Zazove worked hard to overcome, beginning when education experts recommended he be placed in a state institutional school due to the severity of his hearing loss. His parents, however—both physicians—did not heed this advice and, instead, successfully advocated year after year for their son to attend public school in the Chicago suburb where they lived.
“I’ve since learned that most people with a disability identify having the support of others, often parents, as a key factor for success. Without my parents’ support, I doubt I’d be where I am,” he said, indicating that their belief in his abilities inculcated within him the confidence and determination to practice medicine, a calling borne out of his love of science and helping others.
“Caring for patients is why I’m in medicine. The ability to provide continuity of care, care for all conditions that come in the door with an emphasis on prevention, and meet the challenge of practicing the most difficult (but, by no means, boring) specialty due to its breadth are the reasons why I chose to be a Family Physician. Demonstrating high quality Family Medicine is exceptionally rewarding, especially if one is mindful about how much one can impact people’s health,” he said.
Impact is definitely the appropriate word to describe how the achievements, commitment to excellence, and inclusivity of this Family Physician, author, researcher, educator, and administrator affect others. People worldwide continually contact Dr. Zazove to thank him for instilling in them the belief that they, too, can do what they love despite having a disability. This, they say, is the direct result of his example of overcoming adversity to attain remarkable achievements, such as becoming, in 1978, the third certified deaf physician in U.S. history, and in 1989, the first deaf doctor to practice in Michigan.

Relationships Are Key to Combating Burnout

It’s the positive feedback from others that fuels Dr. Zazove’s resiliency and sense of joy, which, he says, helps
him combat burnout that is so prevalent among physicians today.
“The amazing relationships I have with people from near and far, and with my patients and their families, keeps me going,” he affirms.
Equally important, Dr. Zazove says, is embracing life outside of medicine. For him, this entails traveling, cross
country skiing in the winter, swimming and kayaking and golfing in the summer, and spending time with his children, grandchildren, and wife of almost 40 years. He tributes Barbara as the greatest blessing of his hearing loss, reflecting on initially being denied acceptance to 15 medical schools, which led to the chance meeting with
his future wife in their third year at Washington University Medical School in St. Louis, where he transferred after
two years at Rutgers Medical School.
Fast forward through three years of residency training, eight years in private practice, a move to Michigan
to accept positions at University of Michigan Medical School, countless hours devoted to patient care, publication of one autobiography, one novel, and volumes of research findings focused on health services for DHH, one
quickly understands the tremendous impact Dr. Zazove has had on the thousands of individuals whose lives
are better because of him. Among those are the college students selected to receive scholarships from the Louise Tumarkin Zazove Foundation, established in honor of Dr. Zazove’s mother.
Just 13% of DHH people graduate from college, Dr. Zazove explains. “Through the Foundation, deaf and
hard of hearing students receive the financial support they need to earn a college degree necessary for breaking
the pattern of mediocrity and pursuing their academic and professional aspirations, just as my parents’ support
catalyzed me to excel in my endeavors.”
As Dr. Zazove looks ahead to retirement someday in the future, one thing remains certain—he will continue to give back to the profession that has given so much to him. As the saying goes, to whom much is given, much is expected.