Opinion

A Pivotal Moment for Hearing Health Care in America

A new health care challenge set down by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine now lies before Congress, the administration, health care providers, the reimbursement community, and others.

In this day, when we have so many challenges in our health care system, how can we make hearing health a national priority that merits broad attention — not just for our aging population, but also for our younger generations who are facing hearing loss at increasingly higher rates?

In a new and groundbreaking report, “Hearing Health Care for Adults: Priorities for Improving Access and Affordability,” the Academies raises the visibility of untreated hearing loss to level of national attention long overdue. And it does so with one underlying and emphatic call to action: America, pay closer attention to hearing health.

A grossly under-recognized and under-appreciated chronic condition, hearing loss weighs heavily on both individual and public health. Leaving it untreated brings unanticipated and far-reaching consequences far greater than ever realized.

In fact, a new study reveals a significantly higher level of health care spending among people with hearing loss. Even adults considered middle-aged (55 to 64 years old) spend 33 percent more on health care bills than their peers with normal hearing.

Other research shows that people in the workforce with untreated hearing loss lose as much as $30,000 in wages each year, depending on their degree of hearing loss. Collectively, their underemployment costs them an estimated at $176 billion annually — amounting to as much as $26 billion in unrealized federal taxes.

What’s more, unaddressed hearing loss in the workplace may be more common than employers realize. One survey reveals that nearly a third of America’s employees suspect they have hearing loss but haven’t sought treatment.

At the same time, multiple studies show a link between hearing loss and other costly and debilitating chronic conditions, including dementia and cognitive decline, depression, falls, hospitalization, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, moderate chronic kidney disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and sleep apnea, although causation is still not established or clearly understood.

Unquestionably, the case for early and widespread treatment of hearing loss is strong. Yet, it’s well documented that doctors don’t routinely test patients to learn if they have a hearing problem, nor are most trained to do so; consumers with hearing loss are not well-informed on how to navigate the system for securing appropriate diagnosis and treatment; and most people with hearing loss wait six to eight years to take action to address the problem once they notice they’re having difficulty hearing.

All the while, people with untreated hearing loss face serious quality of life issues, especially isolation and even depression.

Fortunately, digital technology, which has changed all of our worlds so dramatically, also has transformed the world of hearing aids. Modern advances have enabled the development of hearing aids that benefit the vast majority of people with hearing loss.

We now have tiny, barely noticeable (or not noticeable at all) hearing aids. When properly programmed for the individual consumer’s specific hearing and lifestyle needs by a hearing care professional, these modern hearing aids are highly effective in enabling consumers to hear, whether in the privacy of their homes or in a crowded restaurant.

(Hearing aids, of course, should not be confused with commonly advertised personal sound amplifiers that simply turn up the volume—sometimes to dangerously high decibel levels — across all sound frequencies regardless of the individual’s specific hearing needs.)

Simply, modern, professionally fitted hearing aids can make a dramatic difference in the quality of life and overall wellbeing of people with hearing loss.

The release of the Academies’ report really does mark a pivotal moment for hearing health care in America. And whether or not each and every one of the recommendations made within the report is on point or will be carried out is only secondary to the mere fact that the Academies has cast the national spotlight on the seriousness of treating hearing loss.

It’s time for us to finally recognize and rise up to the challenge that untreated hearing loss poses for our nation.

We hope that with the issuance of this latest report, Congress and the administration will begin to listen

Carole Rogin is president of the Hearing Industries Association.

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