Buying Hearing Aids Online
It's official. I have a high-frequency hearing loss. According to an online hearing test, that is. My highest threshold to date measured in the sound booth is a whopping 5 dB, which certainly indicates normal hearing sensitivity. Perhaps it is not my place yet to speak on this topic as a student, but I have a hard time believing that a movement toward purchasing hearing aids online would not cause more harm than good.
Those supporting the Internet-based ventures would obviously point toward the fact that hearing professionals have a vested interest in quelling any sort of potential online dispensing movement. As a student who does not own a practice or even a career yet for that matter, I believe I can speak from an unbiased perspective. Especially considering that I can pursue a professional path in any realm, online included, when my studies conclude.
The accrediting bodies and organizations in audiology have made their reasons for opposition clear, and those reasons are all sound. I can speak from my own personal experience. A close relative of mine had complained of unilateral hearing loss for close to a decade. He attributed the impairment to a bicycle tire blast in close proximity to his face and declined treatment for several years. He agreed to visit the campus clinic and let me, along with my practicum supervisor, evaluate his hearing. Interestingly, he cited a family history of single-sided hearing loss (grandfather) and history of mumps and measles during the case history process. Immitance testing showed Type As tympanograms. Pure tone results showed a unilateral mixed hearing loss, with air and bone conduction thresholds meeting at 2kHz. While audiologists do not diagnose medical conditions, we felt that the case history and audiometric results strongly resembled characteristics of otosclerosis, and that the tire blast was likely not the cause of the hearing impairment. We referred him to an ENT who made the diagnosis and scheduled surgery.
What if he had purchased a hearing aid online without knowing the cause of his hearing loss? I'm certainly glad he decided to come to the clinic. While it is true that patients with otosclerosis can elect to use amplification rather than surgery, my relative chose to address the root of his hearing loss. What about those medical disorders associated with hearing loss that can lead to more severe problems if left untreated?
Marketing hearing aids as the sole treatment for hearing loss is wrong and seems dangerous, regardless of the technological advances we have seen. Furthermore, fitting a hearing aid that is inappropriate for the patient's hearing loss or, worse, dispensing hearing aids to a patient who doesn't need them (remember my high-frequency hearing loss?) can cause noise-induced hearing loss. Also, we've all heard the stories of unsatisfied patients who locked their hearing aids in the drawer and refused to try appropriately fit amplification devices from that point on. Those patients were lost because of a poor experience and practice. Market penetration is stagnant as it is. I am new to this field and I cannot read the future, but I have trouble believing that dispensing hearing aids online would not make this problem worse.
So that's my stance on the issue as a student without a practice of my own, or any sort of financial interest in the matter. We chose a field that treats hearing loss, whether that is through counseling, timely referral, fitting amplification, etc., using the best practice available. We owe it to our patients and future patients.