In today’s hustle and bustle world, the time it takes to see a doctor and receive proper medical care can seem like an unnecessary, productivity-killing obstacle. This time suck can seem even more daunting when it comes to addressing the new challenges we face as our bodies get older. As knee aches begin, it’s simply easier to pop an aspirin instead of scheduling a doctor’s visit. Just grab a pair of reading glasses when your vision starts getting blurry — no need to go through the hassle of seeing an eye doctor. Unfortunately, what people don’t realize is these self-diagnoses can not only be wrong, but can create new ailments and higher costs down the road.
Recent legislation sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) aims to cut make hearing aids available over the counter, with the idea of adding convenience and reducing costs. This means patients would no longer be required to have an actual diagnosis from a doctor in order to start treating their symptoms. What this legislation doesn’t consider is that the solution to hearing loss isn’t as simple as turning up the volume on the television.
The human ear is a sensitive, complicated part of the human body that should not be treated by people who don’t know what they are doing. The average American who is having trouble fully hearing conversations around the dinner table is simply not qualified to diagnose and treat disorders and diseases of the ear, just because they think they know their own bodies. Those without the proper training and scientific study can easily make a misdiagnosis, leading to improper treatments, as well as create future problems. For example, in April of this year, the organization for Better Hearing Centers released a number of reasons someone could a misdiagnosis hearing loss: misinformation, ageism, accuracy of cognitive tests, or medical crisis situations. Any number of factors can lead someone to think they are experiencing hearing loss, some more dangerous than others, therefore it is imperative it be correctly diagnosed before simply purchasing a hearing aid.
Senator Warren’s legislation also takes a one-size-fits-all approach to hearing aids. Currently, once a patient has consulted with an Audiologist, a specialized medical professional trained and licensed in the treatment of hearing loss and the prevention future disorders, they will be fitted for a hearing aid that sits comfortably in his or her ear. As anyone who has purchased a pair of in-ear headphones knows, not everyone’s ear is the same size, and purchasing a hearing aid over the counter can end up with someone grabbing a hearing aid that fits poorly – leading to discomfort and pain.
This legislation also doesn’t necessarily achieve its primary objective of bringing down costs. Many insurers currently cover hearing aids as minimum required benefits. If Sen. Warren’s legislation were to pass and hearing aids were made available over the counter, insurance companies drop their coverage of the costs associated with the diagnosis and treatment of hearing loss, even if diagnostic exams are ordered by a doctor. The loss of this coverage could have devastating effects on seniors, who rely more and more on insurance, especially those on fixed incomes. Out-of-pockets are simply not an option for many of them.
While many seniors rely on insurance to cover their hearing aids, a drop-in coverage could have direct effects on their quality of life. If left untreated, hearing loss can range in the severity of effects, from irritability, depression, and reduced physical abilities. Hearing loss in adults has been linked to loneliness, stress, and dementia. A Johns Hopkins study found that cognitive diminishment disproportionately affects seniors, leading to reduced problem-solving skills and decreased motor skills. The study also concluded that individuals with mild hearing loss, the ability to hear the most quiet sounds between 25 and 40 dB, were twice as likely to develop dementia, while those with severe hearing loss, those with the ability to hear the most quiet sounds between 70 and 95 dB were five times as likely. When addressing the medical needs of a population sensitive to medical treatments, like seniors, the last thing we should be doing is removing their doctors from the discussion.
This legislation, while well intentioned, has simply too many unintended consequences. When dealing with any issue as complicated as hearing loss, we should make it easier for patients to consult with doctors and professionals so it can be treated appropriately, not cut them out of the process. Americans are living longer than ever before, and it should be our priority to treat medical conditions for what they are. That means we can’t treat everything like we treat the common cold.
Reneé Amoore is the former head emergency room nurse at Harlem Hospital and founder of Amoore Health Systems in King of Prussia, Penn.
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