Telehealth practices in the hearing aid industry

Out of a Crisis_ Innovation Emerges.png

As a practicing audiologist for over 30 years, I could not have imagined our world turning upside down as it has with the spread of the deadliest pandemic since the Spanish Flu of 1918.   Every aspect of our lives has changed.  Economic, societal and healthcare changes are unprecedented to say the least.  But the eternal optimist in me wants to share the silver lining I see in the hearing care industry.

When the American Academy of Audiology designated audiology services as “non-essential” there was an uproar.  As a provider, I could see the ramifications of our services becoming suddenly unavailable to the hearing impaired.  Imagine sheltering in place for months with untreated hearing loss or malfunctioning hearing aids.  You can’t hear your significant other unless you are in close proximity to them and you must continuously ask them to repeat.  You can’t understand the television clearly unless you raise the volume so high, anyone else watching it with you is uncomfortable or annoyed.  You may be experiencing tinnitus and have no one to turn to for treatment or advice on how to mitigate it. 

With no immediate vaccine available, the hearing care industry has been going through a metamorphosis in order to prepare for providing services to a Covid-19 vulnerable population.  This is where I see the silver lining.  It’s called Telehealth.  We have all seen this emerging in many other areas in healthcare, but it has been slow to emerge in hearing care.  Hearing aid manufacturers have been developing live, remote tuning capabilities for a few years, but most had not yet released these real-time applications until necessity warranted immediate solutions. 

In seeing the current and post Covid-19 benefits of live remote hearing care, I and hopefully many other hearing care providers have spent our isolation learning this new technology.  The advantages of remote care are only beginning to be realized and I want to elaborate on a few of them.  Although a recent and thorough visual inspection of the ear and hearing evaluation is necessary for the initial fitting of hearing aids, most follow up care can now be performed virtually.  Since acoustic environments are very different from place to place, if we can adjust a patient’s hearing aids in the exact environment in which they experience difficulty, we are most likely to quickly and precisely resolve their specific hearing concerns.  In fact, adjusting hearing aids this way is likely to result in higher patient satisfaction rates.

Here are actual examples of how I used real-time remote tuning this week.  

Case #1:  My patient was fit with Oticon Opn1 hearing instruments in 2017 and subsequently moved out of the area.  Although he has been under another provider’s care, that practice did not offer telehealth services. He emailed me and reported that he had lost the dome (end cap) on one of his hearing aids and also reported that his wife has noticed he is not hearing as well as he did when he was initially fit 3 years ago. After he received the replacement domes, I initiated a virtual session through his Oticon Remote Care App.  With this technology, which utilizes a cell phone’s audio and camera systems, I instructed him on hearing aid cleaning techniques and dome replacement.  Finally, I raised up his volume a bit to give him immediate improvement.  This took all of 10 minutes and he was back in business.  Of course, I recommended he see a local provider for a hearing evaluation when it is safe to do so but for now, crisis averted. 

Case #2:  This patient is a middle school teacher that is now teaching virtually from her home.  Her office has high ceilings and tiled floors which was causing an extreme echo effect.  Experiencing this in a 7-hour workday for months was something that she could not tolerate and coming into the office was not an option for her.  Using her remote tuning app, I connected directly to her hearing aids and reduced the annoying echo effect in just a few minutes. 

In summary, our world has changed in the blink of an eye.  I could focus on the difficult challenges ahead, instead I am embracing the innovations that have arisen in the hearing healthcare industry to answer needs that were actually always present but previously difficult to solve.  I am now able to more accurately adjust hearing aids in real time and in real environments.  I can now provide remote care for patients who are snowbirds or those who are unable to come into the office.  I even have portable testing equipment so that patients can receive a complete hearing evaluation in the safety of their homes.  This is only the beginning. I see more innovations on the horizon, and this gives me hope and yes happiness in this time of uncertainty.   Although this terrible pandemic has put the world on pause, telehealth hearing care has emerged and will continue to grow in scope and practice.

Michanne Davidson, Au.D., F-AAA

Clinical Director, Active Life Hearing