Hearing health is a concern for many older adults and their caregivers. Daily life is richer and safer as a result of hearing well. Music, conversations, and information about the world around us all come to people's ears. Hearing well allows people to experience some of the full nature of life. Hearing health is also a safety issue, making walks and driving safer. Hearing loss is also linked to cognitive decline such as dementia.
Living with limited or no hearing is not the end of the world, however. With some frequency, Americans over 65 years old face it every day. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently published an impressive report. The report addresses some of the ways in which providers and community members can help those who experience hearing loss. The information is especially helpful to caregivers whose loved ones face hearing loss or are at risk of experiencing it.
"Access and Affordability" of Hearing Health Treatment
The full name of the report is Hearing Health Care for Adults: Priorities for Improving Access and Affordability. There are two very important terms here. First is access, which is the ability to get to medical practitioners who can help ameliorate hearing loss. The second is affordability, which is the ability of adults to afford the aforementioned medical treatment. This means that the report focused on these as ways of improving the current state of hearing-related medical care for adults. The report does not, for example, look at particular treatments for specific causes of hearing loss. In doing so, the report becomes overarching, and its findings can affect, in theory, any adult with hearing loss.
The report drew several conclusions, but the most far-reaching ones concern three major statements. This first statement is about how public and private health-related organizations treat public information about hearing health. The second is about how doctors who specifically recognize and treat hearing loss (called audiologists) are treated by Medicare. The third is a statement about encouraging the Food and Drug Administration to allow over-the-counter medical devices for those whose hearing loss is not severe. Each of these statements carries with it the weight of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which is one of the most influential and fact-based organizations regarding health in the United States.
What does this mean for caregivers, family members, or seniors themselves who are dealing with hearing loss or related care?
In order to properly treat hearing loss, one must first recognize the problem. Yet an uneducated public, or a public with very few resources for treating or coping with hearing loss, has trouble supporting those whose hearing is at risk. The National Academy of Sciences recommends in its report that both public and private organizations turn their efforts toward improving public knowledge about hearing health, the causes of hearing loss, and the many effects that losing one's hearing can have. This means that both the public and private sectors must make available goods, services, and education that will help adults with hearing loss and invest in community action toward the same end. Ideally, this will result in more opportunities for caregivers and their loved ones to learn about hearing loss and receive help if they need it.
One of the ways that most seniors pay for their healthcare, including hearing loss, is through Medicare. However, Medicare does not currently reimburse audiologists for their treatment of adults with hearing loss. This means that many audiologists must charge seniors more up front for the care they receive. For seniors whose income is low, this is prohibitive, meaning that they cannot get care from an audiologist at all because they cannot afford it.
Audiologists provide care surrounding hearing and even balance-related disorders, which link directly to problems with the inner ear. They can help to recognize, diagnose, and treat the causes of hearing loss. Audiologists study and train specifically to deal with the often challenging effects of losing one's hearing. Without the expertise of these doctors, seniors with hearing loss receive less-than-ideal care for their hearing-related disorders. The National Academy of Sciences recommends changing that, so that more adults can get this important care.
It is the job of the FDA to ensure that food, medicines, and medical devices are safe for the public. Currently, there are not many options for a senior who needs a hearing device for mild or moderate hearing loss but who does not wish to visit a doctor (or cannot afford one). The FDA requires patients to undergo a medical evaluation prior to purchasing a hearing aid. Unfortunately, there are no over-the-counter options. While this is logical in terms of the FDA's mission, it is also prohibitive for those whose income is limited. In addition to this, over-the-counter hearing devices would be, ideally, much lower in cost than existing ones. By recommending the removal of these barriers, the National Academy of Sciences hopes to help adults access over-the-counter hearing devices more easily.
For more information on this report and its consequential recommendations, see the links below.
Academy of Doctors of Audiology. National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Releases Long-Awaited Report, Hearing Health Care for Adults: Priorities for Improving Access and Affordability. Academy of Doctors of Audiology. Available at http://www.audiologist.org/about/ada-news-archive/1641-national-academy-of-sciences-engineering-and-medicine-releases-long-awaited-report-hearing-health-care-for-adults-priorities-for-improving-access-and-affordability. Retrieved September 5, 2016.
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Learn About the CSD Professions: Audiology. Available at http://www.asha.org/Students/Audiology/. Retrieved September 5, 2016.
National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (June 2, 2016). Hearing Health Care for Adults: Priorities for Improving Access and Affordability. National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Available at http://www.nationalacademies.org/hmd/Reports/2016/Hearing-Health-Care-for-Adults.aspx. Retrieved September 5, 2016.
National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.( June 2, 2016). Hearing Health Care for Adults: Priorities for Improving Access and Affordability (An Action Guide for Hearing Health Care Professionals). National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Available at http://www.nationalacademies.org/hmd/~/media/Files/Report%20Files/2016/Hearing/Hearing-ActionGuide-Individuals.pdf. Retrieved September 9, 2016.