With the COVID-19 pandemic still sweeping across nations and the world, healthcare providers are opting for alternative ways of service delivery to minimize contact. The shift is evident even in hearing care practices as audiologists encourage patients to embrace tele-audiology programs.
Unlike regular audiology solutions, tele-audiology uses electronic information and telecommunication technologies to support remote hearing care.
Audiologists have been behind the curve in adopting tele-audiology solutions citing limitations like the lack of reimbursements, the need for expensive infrastructure, and licensure.
However, with the inception of an online hearing test that enables patients to take hearing tests wherever they are, more audiologists have embraced tele-audiology solutions. Here’s more about this new concept.
Benefits of Teleaudiology Solutions
The primary reason for adopting tele-audiology solutions has been the COVID-19 pandemic. But beyond the virus, hearing care professionals can leverage other benefits of this new solution:
- It caters to unmet needs given the growing shortage of audiologists in the country
- The increasing ageing population means more people will need hearing care services. Teleaudiology solutions help take care of such populations even with a limited number of hearing care professionals (HCP)
- The need to deliver customized care to patients
- Telecare provides different services while minimizing contact between the care provider and patients
- Changing reimbursement systems for hearing care by third-parties
- Shifting demand for personalized and on-demand support
- Convenient access to hearing care services, e.g., via mobile devices and satellite offices
Modes of Tele-audiology Delivery
Hearing care professionals can adopt either of these three service delivery solutions:
- Remote patient monitoring: This type of service delivery involves medical data collection from an individual in a particular location using electronic communication technologies, which is transmitted to a provider in another place for evaluation. The service also helps providers to continue monitoring the patient’s healthcare data even after getting dismissed from a care facility
- Synchronous: It’s a two-way interaction between a care provider and a patient using audiovisual telecommunications technology. Standard procedures performed using this service include real-ear measures, hearing aid fittings, and audiological evaluation
- Asynchronous: This kind is often used to perform screening tests on newborns, automated hearing testing, and video otoscopy. After data collection, audiologists review the data for interpretation and recommend suitable treatment
How Teleaudiology Health Solutions are Delivered
Teleaudiology service delivery can be done using these two models:
- Connect two sites
- Connect with the consumer using mobile devices
Connecting Two Sites
This is the most common method of implementing tele-audiology solutions. A connection is established between two locations (usually from the main clinic to a satellite clinic). The idea is to serve locals when the healthcare provider can’t travel to a satellite clinic.
The provider may also establish a connection between the clinic and the patient’s home. Essentially, this model imitates the traditional clinic setting with limited physical contact by the staff and hearing care professionals. The clinic may have similar equipment as the main clinic, and the patient can get tested with or without sound-treated booths.
Connecting with Consumers Using Mobile Devices
This model relies on mobile devices entirely to diagnose and prescribe treatment for hearing problems. Despite its ability to minimize contact in today’s COVID-19 pandemic, this model is wrought with several limitations.
For example, the hearing care professional might find it challenging to accurately identify and diagnose a hearing problem. However, there are one main advantage users enjoy-it provides access to the general public thanks to the increasing use of smartphones.
Statistics show smartphone use will increase to 290.6 million by 2024. Such stats make it appealing to healthcare professionals, including HCPs. Examples of services provided using this model include:
Otoscopy: It examines the ear canal to identify blockages and pathological conditions of the middle ear and the ear canal. Current technologies involve the use of smartphone attachments to capture images and videos of the ear canal and eardrum to store and share
Hearing screening apps: There are many online hearing tests available on the internet. The tests fall into three categories: tonal tests, picture-pointing tests for words, and digit-in noise tests. Some online tests are available as part of public education, a hearing management program, and to enable HCPs to identify potential patients for specific devices
Audiometry: Calibrated headphones are used to measure the noise attenuation level. Recent versions have extended high-frequency testing capabilities of up to 16 kHz, allowing hearing care professionals to test particular hearing problems
The Efficacy of Tele-audiology Tests
Several studies have been conducted to explore the effectiveness of tele-audiology solutions in kids living in rural and urban areas. Of the 23 studies conducted:
- 8 evaluated the feasibility of tele-audiology compared to conventional testing
- 5 used smartphone technology to perform screen hearing
- 4 tested the system’s ability to assess middle ear pathology
- 3 investigated the tele-auditory brainstem response
- 2 tested various institution’s ability to provide intervention using telehealth methods
- 1 evaluated the effectiveness of the tele-audiology service
All the studies showed tele-audiology solutions improve access and coverage, especially in rural areas. Services like online hearing testing and video otoscopy were successfully implemented despite challenges like lack of standard protocol and inadequate staff training.
Overall, the researchers concluded that tele-audiology services are both feasible and helpful in identifying auditory problems in kids.