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Working Group Asks How to Make Hearing Health Care More Affordable, Accessible for Adults with Hearing Loss

Hearing Aid

Why don’t more people who could use a hearing aid wear one? According to recent Healthy People 2010 statistics, only 16 to 17 percent of adults with hearing loss between the ages of 20 and 69 have worn hearing aids, while 25 to 29 percent of adults with hearing loss ages 70 and over have used them.

Hearing health researchers cite multiple reasons for the gulf that exists between those who need and those who have hearing aids, with cost seeming to be an important factor. According to a 2005 MarkeTrac VII survey of 3,000 adults with hearing loss who don’t wear hearing aids, 64 percent of respondents named cost as a reason for forgoing treatment. A Hearing Loss Association of America spokesperson says that hearing aids can range from $1400 to $5000 apiece. Also, Medicare and most private insurance companies don’t cover them. Considering that a hearing aid’s lifespan is only 4-5 years, a hearing aid wearer could spend tens of thousands of dollars on aids over his or her lifetime.

This past August, the issue was explored in-depth during a three-day working group meeting sponsored by the NIDCD. The goal of the meeting, held at the Hyatt Regency in Bethesda, Md ., was to develop a research agenda that could help increase the accessibility and affordability of hearing health care for adults with mild to moderate hearing loss. “This working group focused on people who think they have hearing loss and want help,” said Amy Donahue, Ph.D., deputy director of NIDCD’s Division of Scientific Programs, program director of the hearing research portfolio, and organizer of the event. Judy Dubno, Ph.D., Medical University of South Carolina, and Lucille Beck, Ph.D., Department of Veterans Affairs, co-chaired the working group.

Participants represented a variety of viewpoints, including university and institutional researchers, audiologists, hearing aid manufacturers, local and global entrepreneurs, government regulators, and others. Researchers representing England, Australia, and Denmark, three countries that subsidize the cost of hearing aids and that have much higher rates of hearing aid usage, also took part.

“We want to complement and supplement, not replace, current paradigms and services,” Dr. Donahue instructed the group. “Research questions that are appropriate for NIH to focus on include such areas as technology, intervention services, and service delivery, to name a few.”

For the first two days, participants discussed potential new trends in hearing health care, ranging from telehealth, over-the-counter hearing aids, and convenient care clinics, such as those found in retail and grocery store chains, to new models in hearing aid fitting and distribution, including a self-adjusting hearing aid that could eliminate the need for a visit to the audiologist. Representatives of advocacy and professional organizations also were invited to share their suggestions for what the working group should focus on. On the last day, participants compiled a list of research recommendations that they believe could improve access, assessment and screening, and intervention in hearing health care.

A summary of the working group proceedings along with research recommendations can be found on the NIDCD Web site.

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