It’s been awhile. I’m sorry (again). I’m learning a lot in my PhD program (and loving every minute of it!) but I’m also busier than I’ve ever been and I keep putting this blog aside. But, busy is good. Our research group has been up to some neat and important projects that I’ll be blogging about in this space (hopefully soon!).
Recently, I joined the Joy Cardin show on Wisconsin Public Radio (check out the interview here). During the show there was a comment/question that inspired me to return to the blog.
Two callers mentioned having surgery to “correct” their hearing loss, which is possible with certain types of hearing loss but also very rare. Both times I felt compelled to underline the rarity of their situations. But it begs the question – if a designation of over-the-counter hearing aids emerge and more people manage their own hearing loss, are we going to miss these “correctable” hearing losses?
Let’s break it down.
First, we need a brief anatomy lesson and understanding of the multiple types of hearing loss. The auditory system is pretty complex. Sound enters our ear canal, hits our eardrum, moves across the tiniest bones in our body (the ossicles), and then hits our inner ear where it is encoded and sent to the brain. This entire system must run smoothly for hearing to function at a normal level. Dysfunction or blockage at any level of the system can cause hearing loss.
There are two main types of hearing loss. Sensorineural hearing loss refers to a loss caused by the actual sensory system (e.g. cells in the inner ear), while conductive hearing loss refers to a loss caused by an inability to get sound to the inner ear (e.g. a plug of wax in your ear canal, fluid in your ear, bone overgrowth, etc.). Sensorineural hearing loss is permanent, but conductive is not always permanent and can often be repaired or may subside on its own. For example, fluid in the ear may subside once a cold subsides or surgeons (Otolaryngologists or ENTs) can repair some of the structural issues that would prevent sound from getting to the inner ear.
Whew. That was a lot of learning. Now that that’s out of the way, back to my original question. If hearing aids become available over-the-counter, will more people manage their own hearing loss, resulting in the “medically correctable” losses going undetected? This certainly seems like it could be a possible outcome.
However, I think the answer is no. In fact, I believe we’ll catch more of these “medically correctable” hearing losses because more people than ever will have their hearing tested.
Right now, we know that most people wait around 8 years from noticing their hearing loss before they do anything about it. Moreover, we know that a very small percentage of those with hearing loss actually have hearing aids. There are many reasons people ignore hearing loss, including cost, access, and general public health awareness. I believe the over-the-counter hearing aid model will actually improve all of these areas. By changing the way hearing aids are distributed, cost will be reduced (larger market, less middle men, and more competition), and more people will have access to them. As more people have access to them and see them in stores and online, the public awareness of hearing loss will increase.
As more people become aware of hearing loss, more people will pursue hearing testing. With increased hearing aids sales, audiologists and hearing aid dispensers will actually see more people. This is because more people than ever will be using hearing aids, which will require care and maintenance visits for counseling, fitting, adjusting, and instructions on their new hearing aids. In addition, with the increased access to hearing aids, adults will likely pursue hearing help earlier than ever, leading to many seeing audiologists down the road. While some savvy users will purchase over-the-counter hearing aids and never see an audiologist or hearing aid dispenser, I think many of them will eventually see an audiologist and give us the opportunity to identify those rare “medically correctable” cases.
In all, over-the-counter devices won’t just provide more people with devices, they may act as a catalyst to bring hearing loss into the public’s conscious and help get more people into the door of an audiologist clinic to have their hearing tested.
Have a great day!
Nicholas S. Reed