Remote Alaskan towns are proof of concept for virtual hearing care

Remote Alaskan towns are proof of concept for virtual hearing care

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Telemedicine goes hand in hand with new over-the-counter hearing aids

Photo by: BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Digital health tools could help detect early signs of hearing loss and prevent further damage, a new analysis highlights. Virtual care, coupled with newly available over-the-counter hearing aids, could make it easier for people living in rural areas and far from specialists to keep their hearing sharp. 

“We can really meet people where they are,” says Samantha Robler, study author and an audiologist at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

Millions of people around the world have some type of hearing loss, which can make it harder for them to do well in school, have fulfilling relationships, and get good jobs. Most of this hearing loss — like the kind caused by exposure to loud noises or infections — is preventable. But the audiologists who can diagnose and help treat hearing loss are often concentrated in major cities, making it hard for people who live in rural areas to get proper care. 

As with most specialty medical care, experts turned to telemedicine as a potential solution. Robler’s new paper, published in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, outlines different approaches: audiologists can evaluate people over a real-time video connection; people can take tests and then send the results to experts; patients can test themselves. 

Robler tested the approach in Alaska, where children are more likely to experience hearing loss than kids in other parts of the United States. Kids there have screening tests in schools to flag any concerns around their hearing, but many don’t actually follow through and get a full battery of testing. Connecting them to telehealth rather than an in-person primary care doctor sped up that process, according to a clinical trial published this summer. “The results are pretty outstanding,” Robler says. “We spent a lot of time talking to community members and focus groups to contextualize the findings and how to scale this thing up.”

Robler is running more studies on telemedicine and childhood hearing loss in Alaska and Appalachia, she says. 

The push for better access to hearing loss care through telehealth coincides with the Food and Drug Administration’s decision to finally make hearing aids available over the counter. The two go hand in hand. “The aims of using telehealth technology are similar to what the FDA is shooting for in terms of making sure that people that need access to these services and technology solutions have them,” she says. 

Having telehealth available around hearing care could give people an easier way to double-check if their new hearing aids are working as intended, for example. “It can help go through the tier of the healthcare system,” she says. “I’ll try a device. If it doesn’t work, I’ll go talk to a provider, but I don’t need to go to an office — I can just set up an appointment over my mobile phone.” 

Around one in four people globally live with some kind of hearing loss, and that number is expected to continue to rise. So there’s a pressing need for better care, Robler says. “Do we have creative solutions to reach that many people?”

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Nicole Wetsman

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