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We Hear You: NIDCD Research Strives to Make Hearing Aids, Hearing Health Care More Affordable and Accessible

If you are in your 60s or 70s and your hearing isn’t what it once was, you’re not alone. Hearing loss is the third most common chronic health condition affecting older adults behind high blood pressure and arthritis. Yet most people go untreated. Why?

Although hearing aid technology has improved over the years, most hearing aid users tend to be people with severe hearing loss. People with milder forms of hearing loss, who could benefit from hearing aids, are largely going without. These individuals are unlikely to have had a hearing test or to be using hearing aids. It’s these people whom the NIDCD hopes to reach through a new research effort to make hearing health care, including hearing aids, more affordable and accessible, according to an article in the March 2011 issue of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s (ASHA’s) e-newsletter Access Audiology.

“While the NIDCD has always funded research on hearing loss and hearing aids, very little research has addressed the hearing health care system, including accessibility and affordability,” said coauthor Amy Donahue, Ph.D., program director for hearing at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). Other authors include Judy Dubno, Ph.D., professor and auditory researcher at the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston; and Lucille Beck, Ph.D., chief consultant for rehabilitation services and director of the audiology and speech pathology program in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Drs. Donahue, Dubno, and Beck outline the major issues that have brought us to this turning point. First, Americans are getting older. In 2026 (just 15 years from now), nearly one-third of the U.S. population will be over 55 and 18 percent will be over 65. Second, there continues to be a large gap between people who receive adequate health care and those who don’t. People who are older or chronically ill or who have limited incomes generally have fewer options available to them, so they go without. Third, new technologies are being developed that could automate such hearing-related services as hearing testing and hearing aid fitting and programming. In addition, hearing aid components are becoming more affordable, which could help reduce overall cost. Fourth, there has been a paradigm shift in the way that consumers are seeking health care services, including hearing health care. Hearing aids are being purchased online and in specialty stores, while hearing aid tests can be conducted remotely over the Internet or through telemedicine technologies.

In August 2009, the NIDCD sponsored a research working group on accessible and affordable hearing health care for adults with mild to moderate hearing loss. Individuals representing national and international organizations with a range of viewpoints and areas of expertise, including research, patient care, industry, small business, and the federal government, took part to brainstorm research needs in the areas of access, assessment and screening, and intervention. Their ideas were to “complement and supplement, not replace, current paradigms and services,” according to the working group summary which is published online, along with group’s list of research recommendations.

As a result of these recommendations, the NIDCD has developed targeted research initiatives in three areas. Researchers are encouraged to submit grant applications:

  • To explore new approaches that could lead to improved access, assessment, and intervention in hearing health care;
  • To develop methods to determine the success of new or improved approaches in hearing health care; and
  • To create small business technologies to improve access to hearing health care for underserved patients.

“The ultimate goal—an increase in the number of adults with hearing impairments who are receiving quality hearing health care in the United States—is a public health mandate we can all support,” the authors said. “Let's work together to achieve this goal.”