With technology increasing every day and the use of smartphones becoming more prevalent, remote health, or telehealth, is becoming more useful and easier than ever. Especially in the age of social distancing, telehealth is very much in need. The American Academy of Audiology reports that 77 million people in the United States live in a designated health-professional-shortage area, with 62 percent in rural areas and 31 percent in non-rural areas (Health Resources and Services Administration, 2019). Shortages in healthcare professionals prevent access to timely care. Access limits are further exacerbated by a lack of basic insurance coverage (Institute of Medicine, 2009).
Telehealth, or the use of medical information exchanged from one site to another through electronic communications to improve a patient’s health (American Telemedicine Association), is a powerful tool for delivering cost-effective access to state-of-the-art medical expertise. Telehealth is not a separate specialty but a method for delivering health care. If implemented well, it can be the great equalizer in access to medical care across the population. (Audiology Today, March/April 2020)
Telehealth is not only for physicians. More and more, it’s being used for audiological needs. The Veterans Administration has been using teleaudiology for a long time due to the shortage of audiologists needed to care for veterans with hearing loss, hearing aids, and tinnitus. Also, teleaudiology is used for veterans who do not have local audiological care. Some can go to their local VA clinic and have a remote appointment with an off-site audiologist. For these remote appointments, a trained technician serves as the “hands” of the off-site audiologist. All testing, hearing aid fitting, verification, and follow-up can be done using a webcam and microphone, and all the testing equipment is housed on one large, portable cart.
Telehealth and teleaudiology have also been used in rural Alaska where there is not much of a road system and travel from city to city involves an airplane ride. Because Alaska is so medically underserved, many rely on telehealth to see their healthcare provider. Alaska built a robust telehealth-networked solution to improve access to care. One of the largest telehealth endeavors in the world is the Alaska Federal Healthcare Access Network (AFHCAN), the primary telehealth solution in Alaska since its implementation in 2001.
How can teleaudiology be done locally? Here in Northwest Ohio, we don’t have the issues that rural Alaskans may have, but there are some instances in which remote care can be utilized. In our office, we are starting to incorporate remote hearing aid adjustments with some patients. We have found this very useful for patients who have issues in a certain listening situation that just can’t be replicated in the office. It could be their work area, a favorite restaurant, a place of worship, or even in their car. Also, we have patients who live in another part of the country for half the year and may need an adjustment to their hearing aid while they’re gone.
So how does this work? With certain hearing aids and using the patient’s smartphone, we can connect to the patient’s hearing aids and push changes to their hearing aids. For example, if they have trouble hearing at work, we can schedule a “virtual appointment” with the patient while they are at work so we can make real time changes to their hearing aids to help solve their issues. The same applies to a favorite restaurant or place of worship.
But there are some limitations to this. Not all hearing aids have this capability, and not all smartphones are compatible with this technology. Also, only adjustments to the hearing aids can be made; actual repairs cannot be done. In some cases, a Wi-Fi connection is necessary for the remote programming to work. Finally, if the patient is not too savvy at using their smartphone, connecting may be more difficult.
If you would like more information on this technology with hearing aids, please contact our office and speak to one of our audiologists. We will be more than happy to inform you on the latest technology. We can also schedule you for a demonstration in our office.
More and more hearing aids that are coming out on the market are incorporating this technology. This will save the patients repeated trips to the office and save the audiologist or physician time. Telehealth is very helpful for patients who cannot leave their home, have transportation issues, or are too sick to leave the home. During the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth has made it possible for people to get health care without leaving their home and risking spreading the virus. As the technology becomes more available, I believe more and more healthcare providers will offer telehealth to treat their patients.
If you would like more information on teleaudiology or would like to find out if this can be done with your hearing aids, please call Northwest Ohio Hearing Clinic and ask to speak to one of our audiologists.
Dianna Randolph, AuD, CCC-A, is a Doctor of Audiology with Northwest Ohio Hearing Clinic, located at 1125 Hospital Dr., Suite 50 in Toledo (419-383-4012) and 1601 Brigham Dr., Suite 160 in Perrysburg (419-873-4327).