Hearing a Need

Audiologist turned entrepreneur Dr. Lana Joseph-Ford is filling a demand that just keeps growing
Illustration by Tony Healey

Keith Twitchell spent 16 years running his own business before becoming president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. He has observed, supported and participated in entrepreneurial ventures at the street, neighborhood, nonprofit, micro- and macro-business levels.


Some people actively seek out ways to become entrepreneurs; for others, entrepreneurial opportunities come to them.

Dr. Lana Joseph-Ford falls into the latter category, and has made the most of those opportunities, helping to address a major healthcare problem in the process.

Although she attended business school at University of New Orleans, Joseph-Ford completed her medical training in audiology and had, in her words, “a nice, easygoing practice.” Most of her patients were adults.

In relatively short order, however, she established connections with several local pediatricians and began seeing a lot of children with hearing issues. At this point, she was still focused exclusively on audiology, but a lot of the parents were also inquiring about speech therapy.

Many people are not aware of the close connection between hearing problems and speech impediments. Fewer still — even in the medical community — understand the link between treating the two issues in a coordinated manner.

As she looked into the situation more closely, Joseph-Ford was shocked to find that for children seeking speech therapy, the average wait for treatment was a full year.

“The early years are so critical for learning, especially for things like speech and language,” Joseph-Ford explained. “The situation was just not acceptable.”

Her concern was far more than simply professional, it was personal. She struggled with a speech impediment herself in her youth and said “it influences who you will become. I still have issues with confidence when speaking in front of groups of people.”

Ample research has shown speech and hearing problems negatively impact school performance, social development and career opportunities, and can even cause significant behavioral issues. Even worse, doctors sometimes take the “they’ll grow out it” approach and tell parents there is nothing they can do for their children’s speech challenges.

Determined to provide a better alternative, Joseph-Ford hired a speech therapist at her practice and began welcoming three patients a week; She now engages 12 speech therapists who see approximately 900 patients a week at her location on Jefferson Highway in Harahan, which she opened in 2016. High Level Speech & Hearing Center added another location in New Orleans on Magnolia Street in January 2018. The company also provides hearing and speech testing, consultation and treatment through a variety of schools, community centers and camps.

Her rapid growth forced Joseph-Ford to reach out for assistance. Through a training program by Propeller, she was assisted in developing a business model that she described as lean and flexible.

“The demand has not stopped, and we have to respond to it,” she said.

Her outreach to schools and other facilities has included supplying quantitative data about speech and hearing disorders and what can be done about them and she has expanded her practice to include dizziness and balance testing, afflictions that are often related to speech and hearing.

In addition, she is now working with senior centers, as more research begins to show links between the disorders and elder diseases such as dementia.

Assisting her in managing this growth is her husband, Jamal Ford, who noted one of the obstacles they face is cultural.

“There is not much of an entrepreneurial mindset in the field of speech pathology,” he said. “When we bring on new staff, they have to be trained into that culture.”

Part of the culture means being willing to take on a higher caseload, reach out to more people and work longer hours.

The couple also hopes to see more providers moving into their own private practices, especially women, who dominate the field medically but are under-represented entrepreneurially.

Despite the growth, the success, the ongoing expansion (“We want to be in 15 parishes by 2025,” Joseph-Ford vowed), the motivation remains personal. Sometimes she still experiences the shyness she developed from her own childhood speech issues.

“I’ve seen so many people do so much better,” she said, “and there are so many more out there. I know we can help.”

 

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