It is established that although hearing aids are small pieces of sophisticated technology, they can greatly increase one’s quality of life by promoting better communications with others, benefitting brain functioning and supporting independence and safety. To find the best quality of care for someone with hearing loss, assistance from a licensed hearing care professional (HCP) is important. HCPs ensure the wearer selects appropriate technology for their unique needs, perform adjustments and resolve issues that occur with the hearing aids, educate and provide support to extend the lifespan of a device, and ensure the wearer is getting the greatest overall comfort and benefit from their hearing aids.
Currently around 20 percent of people aged 60 or older are suffering from disabling hearing loss, and that number continues to grow as the population ages. We must make it easier for individuals to find hearing loss treatment through hearing aids provided with the support of a HCP. High-quality, regulated devices in a range of price points and form factors are, of course, part of the solution in increasing access to hearing aids. But we can employ another important strategy to improve hearing aid uptake and wear-time: widescale embrace of telehealth services in audiology.
Telehealth writ large has already begun to prove its value. When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, healthcare providers and their patients were urged to adopt telehealth services—care provided virtually, at a distance, via telephone or computer-based videoconferencing software. According to recent analysis by McKinsey & Company, telehealth utilization spiked in spring 2020 and has now leveled off at 38 times what it was before the pandemic. This, and skyrocketing investment in virtual care, would indicate a positive, long-term shift in healthcare delivery.
Now consider hearing health, specifically. Each of the pictured five key steps has traditionally required at least one in-person visit with an HCP, taking an average of 30 to 60 minutes of facetime, not including travel. By enabling the patient and HCP to pick and choose when and how they interact, telehealth has the potential to empower the patient to become a more effective hearing aid wearer over the long haul.
Today there are telehealth solutions designed to help patients engage remotely with their HCPs after the initial in-office fitting, including remote tuning, troubleshooting, and video calls.
Although a telehealth model is not for everyone—some patients may not be comfortable with technology while others simply prefer face-to-face care—we’re reaching a point when a permanent, full-time telehealth option is not just viable, but also critical to the growing need for better hearing.
It’s been shown in other specialties that when given a choice, many patients prefer a telehealth option, especially for routine appointments. And increasingly, older adults—many of whom would benefit from hearing aids—have shown they’re comfortable with the technology needed for telehealth. They’ve used online tools to connect with family and friends during a pandemic; now, recognizing the convenience, many are willing and able to try telehealth when offered the tools.
Not every element of in-person hearing care can be delivered virtually (yet), but enough of the patient journey can be achieved via computer or smartphone that when both patient and HCP agree to it, telehealth can be used whenever possible. HCPs are trained to follow the science, and in the case of telehealth, the science shows that under the right circumstances, it is a viable, important, and effective tool for improving uptake and outcomes.
Brian Taylor, AuD, is the director of clinical content development for Signia and a member of HIA’s Telehealth Task Force. He is also the editor of Audiology Practices, a quarterly journal of the Academy of Doctors of Audiology, editor-at-large for Hearing Health and Technology Matters and adjunct instructor at the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Taylor has authored several peer reviewed articles and textbooks and is a highly sought out lecturer. Brian has nearly 30 years of experience as both a clinician, business manager and university instructor. His most recent textbooks, Audiology Practice Management and the 3rd edition of Selecting and Fitting Hearing Aids were published in 2020.