WASHINGTON—Treating hearing loss shouldn’t be such a pricey hassle. That’s the message from a prestigious government advisory group that’s calling on Medicare and other agencies to find ways to make better hearing more affordable and accessible for millions of older Americans.
One proposal: Allow over-the-counter sales of simple devices for mild hearing problems as an alternative to full hearing aids—much like consumers with vision problems today choose between drugstore reading glasses or prescription bifocals.
The report says action is important because hearing loss isn’t just a struggle for individuals but a growing public health problem, putting untreated seniors at extra risk of social isolation, depression, even dementia.
Do-it-yourself auto repairs might make sense for the savvy and mechanically inclined, while do-it-yourself electricians should probably think twice about it. But do-it-yourself health care? Probably not. Yet easy access to health information online and a culture that too often encourages speed over quality is leading Americans down a very unhealthy path.
I've witnessed this vividly in the world of hearing loss, where quick fixes that are "easier and cheaper" are being passed off as solutions to complex hearing challenges. There is no cookie-cutter solution to hearing health, no matter how many of these stories are published. The result we're seeing in the world of audiology is people taking shortcuts that undermine their hearing in ways that can waste money, allow issues to fester and ultimately harm their quality of life.
In my last entry, I examined the mythical elephant PCAST created in its examination of the hearing healthcare system. The creature seemed to be purely product – no professional services needed – and closely resembled the vision of the Consumer Electronics Association and PSAP manufacturers.
In many ways, the PCAST report is the epitome of the commoditization of hearing healthcare.
The word audiologist was barely used in the report while the more generic “dispenser” and “hearing health care provider” were used more often. Without any evidence whatsoever, the PCAST vision delegated those with mild to moderate hearing loss – the largest category of hearing impaired individuals – into a category where self-diagnosis, self-fitting and self-adjusting are all that is needed.
OCTOBER 26, 2015
BY CHRISTINE CASSEL AND ED PENHOET
President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology letter report investigated age-related mild to moderate hearing loss.
Untreated, age-related hearing loss is a significant national problem. With the population 65 and older in the United States expected to reach 80 million in the next 25 years, the number of people with hearing loss will rise dramatically. Already, a quarter of adults between 60 and 69 years, more than half of adults between 70 and 79 years, and almost 80 percent of those older than 80 years have difficulty hearing – that’s almost 30 million Americans. Only a small fraction of this group seek out and use assistive hearing technologies, including hearing aids, and that rate is even smaller among low income and racial and ethnic minorities.