As people age, they will naturally encounter some form of hearing loss. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorder (NIDCD) estimates that 50 percent of people aged 70 and older suffer from disabling hearing loss 1.
Undiagnosed hearing loss within the geriatric population is correlated to a host of impacts, including loneliness, social isolation, depression, and early on-set even dementia. A study conducted at Johns Hopkins University by renowned Geriatric Medicine and Otolaryngology researcher Dr. Frank Lin found a 41 percent increase in cognitive diminishment in older people living with known hearing loss.
“His (Dr. Lin) study connected the dots between the degree of hearing loss and the risk of developing dementia. Frighteningly, those with mild hearing loss were twice as likely to develop dementia. Those with moderate hearing loss were three times as likely, and those with severe hearing loss were five times as likely as compared to those with normal hearing,” explained SHOEBOX Ltd. founder Dr. Matthew Bromwich in a blog post he authored on the link between hearing loss and dementia. “This does not mean that because you have hearing loss, you will develop dementia – but some suggest that the earlier you address and treat a drop in hearing, the stronger your chances of delaying or even avoiding the onset of geriatric dementia. A most compelling argument, in my opinion, for regular hearing testing and the early adoption of hearing aids if warranted.” 2
This data is well-known by hearing healthcare providers. Every day they work tirelessly to provide a high level of audiological care to this segment of the population. Often, their patients are shocked to learn the full extent of their hearing loss and have not considered that they could be candidates for hearing aids.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this issue by adding new barriers to accessible hearing care, with many providers not being able to connect with their older patients. In addition, care providers now wear masks and remain at a safe distance, making speech that much harder to understand. This change presents some significant communication hurdles for people already experiencing some hearing loss. They can no longer see facial expressions and lip movements, making it even more troublesome to communicate. The ability for older adults to effectively communicate with nurses, clinicians, and other healthcare providers is fundamental for positive health outcomes and well-being for older adults. 3
Bruyère Hospital, a multi-site healthcare organization, partnered with SHOEBOX Ltd. on a joint project designed to enhance their patient experience. The project was enabled through the funding of CAN Health Network, a partner in the project. Using SHOEBOX QuickTest, they offered hearing assessments to all patients upon admission to their geriatric rehabilitation unit.
The idea was to enable their clinical team to assess the hearing ability of some new patients before beginning treatment. Those patients’ results were shared with their physicians and the care team, and as a result the care team was able to adjust their communication and care for the patients as required. This way, they were assured that every patient in their care clearly heard all conversations with their care providers – from admission to discharge, diagnosis to treatment plans.
“We saw that over 98 percent of our patients had a hearing loss, and it ranged from reduced to very reduced. That’s higher than what you would expect, but we do service a much older population. What’s really interesting is that over 50 percent of them had not been diagnosed,” stated Dr. Heidi Sveistrup, Ph.D. CEO and Chief Scientific Officer of the Bruyère Research Institute and VP of Research and Academic Affairs. “Hearing is clearly a problem for our patients, and if we’re able to help them with their hearing, then we’re going to have much better outcomes for social and health consequences of hearing loss.”
SHOEBOX QuickTest has worked well to support patients and their families when facing some of the unique challenges presented by the pandemic, explained Mitch Kutney, Director of Innovation and Development at Bruyère.
“We realized pretty quickly at Bruyère, as we were implementing new COVID-19 measures, that hearing became even more important. Now, not only are there potential patients with an existing hearing issue, but we are all wearing masks, and it becomes even harder to understand what people are saying. Harder to hear what your doctor is telling you. And you need to understand them clearly in order to get better,” said Kutney.
“SHOEBOX was a great catalyst in us being able to respond to a new world of order in healthcare. We were equipping our frontline workers with a tool that told them right off the bat whether or not they needed to pay more attention to a particular patient to ensure they hear what is being said and can follow the care plan put forward.”
This same issue of barriers to hearing health care exists in long-term care facilities. Local restrictions have made it hard for family members to visit with their older relatives. These family members often act as advocates and serve as a vital touchpoint in their care plans. But pandemic-related visitor restrictions mean that family members and friends, who are usually some of the first people to notice the hearing loss, may not be aware of the change in their loved one’s health.
As a result, we’ve seen a shift among hearing healthcare providers towards low and no-touch audiological screening and testing solutions. Our portable audiometers and hearing screeners are designed to power both mobile and remote strategies with self-administered screening and the ability to test from a safe distance in a quiet environment outside of a sound booth.
Treatment for hearing loss begins with access to a hearing test. Coming up with a safe and effective patient-centric approach for geriatric audiological assessment during the pandemic and beyond is a crucial component of a person’s overall mental and physical health. Hearing aids may not be required but promoting awareness of hearing healthcare and regular assessment is imperative, both during the pandemic and as we enter our new normal.
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