There is a lot of uncertainty going around these days. Different myths about the coronavirus are being presented and debunked on a daily basis. It’s affecting the economy, our daily lives, and of course, the healthcare industry.
Since these all have untold knockon effects, could the pandemic also be affecting the realm of audiology? We asked Clear Living's resident audiologist Dr. Lindsey Banks for her perspective, and here’s what she had to say.
With further isolation now being imposed, do you think elderly people are going to be more isolated and vulnerable?
LB: People with hearing loss, especially elderly people with hearing loss who may be less tech-savvy, rely on face-to-face communication to stay connected. For those who are isolated who have hearing loss, they will have a more difficult time staying connected with their friends and family because they often times have a harder time hearing on the phone.
Without visual cues to help aid in hearing on the phone, it can be challenging for someone with hearing loss to use the phone. There are many technologies in place (i.e. Skype, Facetime, Zoom, Google Hangouts, etc.) to allow those who are isolated to stay in touch and should be made use of for people with hearing loss when possible.
People with hearing loss also are at a hearing disadvantage when their doctor, nurse etc. are wearing masks because they can't rely on lip-reading and visual cues.
Contagion through touch
This virus is very contagious, especially through physical touch. How safe is a hearing test in terms of physical contact?
LB: From what I've read, the primary concern would be airborne particles that remained in the booth. At this time, we're not recommending new hearing tests unless it is an emergency.
Otoscopy, which is performed prior to the exam, requires very close contact – the audiologist is looking in the patient's ear with an otoscope, and their faces are inches from each other. A video otoscope would be better because the audiologist can see the inside of the ear on the computer screen, without having to get their face as close to the patient.
High risk patients
Many hearing care professionals work with older/high risk patients, or those with conditions such as heart/lung disease or diabetes. What precautions should these professionals take?
LB: Ideally, they would not see these patients at this time. If necessary, there are some steps that should be taken:
1) All people (both patients and doctors) who enter the clinic should be tested for fever.
2) Both patient and doctor are advised to wear a mask and gloves, especially in situations where a 6 foot social space cannot be maintained.
3) As with all patients, areas should be disinfected between each appointment.
However, given the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) around the world, this is a struggle between what is preferred versus what is practical. We are asking any and all patients to reschedule non-emergency appointments to a later date.
Are audiologists shutting their doors, or do they plan to any time soon?
LB: This is currently location and practice specific. I believe most audiologists are currently in a transition of temporarily suspending or rescheduling all non-urgent appointments.
Could you mention if you and other medical professionals are keeping your practice open to those in real need of hearing aids and batteries?
LB: This is a fluid situation, that will continue to change as authorities react to the coronavirus. Some audiologists in the more heavily-hit areas like California and New York have already closed their practices this past week and those that are still open are seeing only urgent needs on a case-by-case basis, like if a person's hearing aid or cochlear implant has broken and they are without sound.
Many practices around the country are doing “drive-thru” (someone in the office goes to their car and gets their hearing aids so they don't have to come in) or drop-off services where the patient can drop off their hearing aids at the office to be fixed.
Starting this week many practices around the country, including myself, will be rescheduling all non-urgent patients 3-4 weeks out. I will only be doing urgent hearing aid repair drop-offs for the time-being. Some audiologists who work in a hospital-setting have not altered any of their appointments.
For me, I was surprised to see very few cancellations from my patients this past week. Many of my patients, even those who are over 70 years old, still came for their regularly scheduled visits and were thankful we were still open. Two weeks ago we implemented a screening procedure for staff and patients as soon as they came in, including temperature, travel, and symptom checks and questions.
Many manufacturers are encouraging the use of tele-audiology with the use of remote hearing aid programming and/or troubleshooting. While there may already be some practices equipped to offer this to their patients, I wouldn't say it's the majority.
Do we know of any hearing problems resulting from Coronavirus?
LB: I am not aware of any. Currently the CDC has not posted any hearing related symptoms of the novel coronavirus. However, having a high fever for any extended length of time can result in hearing loss, which could be a potential outcome for some people.
The healthcare industry is obviously quite impacted by this – will the economical problems make hearing aids more or less expensive?
LB: There's no conclusive data to suggest that hearing aid prices will change. However, I would imagine there will be differing responses from manufacturers depending on how much business downtime they incur.
So there you have it! While the realm of audiology itself hasn’t been hit too hard with virus-related repercussions, there are still wide-spanning impacts that affect everyone the same way. One hearing aid company even had to delay a trial for a new hearing aid!
Audiologists have put a soft pause on their activity, which means that, barring an emergency, you won’t be able to set up a consultation. In the meantime, here’s how you can protect your ears. We hope you stay safe and distanced from any harm!