Seeing the Forest for the Trees…What’s Wrong with Audiology


I love my Audiology colleagues.  But I do not always love my Audiology profession.  For the most part, Audiologists are very skilled and knowledgable professionals.  We do an excellent job of assessing hearing levels, and identifying the site of lesion of the hearing loss.  We have incredible diagnostic tools at our disposal ranging from basic pure tone audiometry (we still mask better than anyone else), to ABR, to Otoacoustic emissions.  We understand how hearing aids work, how to fit them, and how to verify performance using real ear measurement techniques.  In short, we are very well trained at performing assessments.

So whats my beef?  Let me illustrate from a few examples.

  1. When I started working as an educational audiologist in the 90’s, I was asked to report on the progress of child with hearing loss.  I did the usual…hearing assessment, hearing aid selection and verification.  I was an early adopter of the RECD, and I proudly showed how well the hearing aids were meeting DSL targets.  But the parents kept asking me why their kid couldn’t hear well, and I just kept thinking “Beats me, but I did a great job of hitting targets, so there”.  This started to make me realize I needed to look at things differently.
  2. I have had numerous times where I have been asked to assist with an FM fitting on an adults who essentially who have no hearing left.  As recently as just a few months ago, an Audiologist, who was a recent graduate from a Doctor of Audiology (AuD) Program, asked me to help with a client who only have hearing at 250 Hz and 500 Hz.  In other words- deafened.  I thought, “Now you want to try an FM system on this client?  You should have introduced this 10 years ago when the client had a moderate-severe loss.”
  3. The percentage of people with moderate severe losses or greater who use FM systems is disappointingly low.  Yes, I can hear my colleagues protesting saying “Adults won’t use FM”.  Well, if you polled the patients with hearing loss and asked them why they don’t use an FM, their likely answer will be “What’s an FM system?”, or “I was never told about these devices”.
  4. People with hearing loss routinely complain of hearing in noise yet we rarely assess this.  We cannot just do a pure tone audiogram in quiet.  We need to assess the problem that is vexing our patients the most and then find equipment and strategies to deal with that.
  5. How often are the limited number of rehabilitative lectures at Audiology conferences pushed back to Saturday morning.
  6. How many patients know about other assistive devices such as vibrating alarm clocks and fire alarms that are also needed for daily living with a hearing loss?
  7. I frequently am asked situational based rehabilitative questions.  For example, “Peter, how do you help a client hear in meetings” or “How can I help my client who works in a call centre?” etc.  Audiology seems poorly equipped at finding solutions to these situational problems.

What we need is to change Audiology practice from one that is almost exclusively diagnostically-driven to one that is also rehabilitative in nature. We have daily opportunities to do both in parallel:  to complete exemplary testing and then guide the rehabilitation of the patient based on test results.

Frankly the AuD has not helped expand the scope of our interventions, in fact, it has made us even more diagnostically focused.  This bias reduces our practice habits to those of technicians rather than professionals who practice to the full scope of our expertise.

In 2002, the World Health Organization introduced a classification of functioning, disability and health (ICF) to measure health and disability at both individual and population levels. The ICF “takes into account the social aspects of disability and does not see disability only as a medical or biological dysfunction. By including contextual factors, in which environmental factors are listed, ICF records the impact of the environment on the person’s functioning.” (www.who.com). The ICF can help identify: What is the patients level of functioning? What treatments or interventions can maximize functioning? What are the needs of persons with various levels of disability- impairments, activity limitations and participation restrictions?

How do we apply this framework to Audiology?  We view hearing loss as medical/biological dysfunction and our practice culture encourages us to focus on this.  We cannot stop at this – we must go further to examine patient’s functional capacities.

Without question, every patient should have their hearing levels fully and accurately assessed. In addition, we need to accurately determine, to the best of of ability with our non-invasive procedures, the site of lesion. The hearing loss is the genesis of the problem and we cannot proceed we fully understand what we are dealing with.  This is where Audiology shines.

Next we need to look at function.  At a minimum, we should perform a Hearing in Noise Test such as the LiSN-S PGA an all of our clients.  The world is a noisy place and we need to know in what situations our patients will have difficulty.

Functional capacities can also be assessed by asking our patients directly how they function in the context of their own daily lives using a tool such as the COSI.

Once we identify functional concerns, we need to then determne how to maximize function.  Here we need to consider all of the equipment needed.  For example, consider a client with a moderate severe hearing loss that performed poorly on the LiSN-S PGA and has identified several hearing in noise problems on the COSI.  Such a client will likely need a hearing aid with directional microphones, an FM system, and perhaps some alerting devices.  Then this client will need to be counselled how to use these devices properly.  This is a wholistic treatment plan.  But too often, a hearing aid is selected solely based on cosmetic concerns.  Nothing else is recommended, equipment such as FM systems are not discussed.  This is unacceptable.  We owe it to our clients to counsel them properly on the pros and cons of different equipment choices and on how to best navigate the world at-large with a hearing loss . In the absence of this collective practice change, our clients will succeed or fail only through trial and error. I believe that we are capable of delivering more.

These fundamental changes need to occur at the University level.  Audiologists are intelligent and compassionate people; they are fully capable of practicing in this model.  They are simply not taught to think in this way.

Once we shift our focus to maximizing client function, we will be able to see not only the trees but the forest as well.

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4 thoughts on “Seeing the Forest for the Trees…What’s Wrong with Audiology

  1. This is really an interesting piece. It is what most Auditory-Verbal Therapists have been soap boxing for years. Personally, I always prayed for audiologists who concentrated on functional living with the technology and not the speech perception tests, the aided thresholds et al. And you know, I was very lucky to find some of them. I admire the work,but more than that, I admire those audiologists who listen closely and ask my opinion as I do theirs.

  2. Excellent write-up, Peter. It is very true. I learned a lot in my AVT program and we see it in the schools – especially if they do not go to CHEO or another clinic that is familiar with FM.

  3. I feel your pain. Our university audiology programs need to put more emphasis on FM systems and BlueTooth technology. Being able to demonstrate these different technologies in the office is an invaluable tool. We are locally trying to educate the public about the great advantages of induction loop systems. Hearing loops are available in many places in Europe, but the US has not realized the importance of this mode of communication.

    http://www.lowedown.net

    • Thanks for the comments Greg. It’s all about thinking about the whole person and how they will function in the context of their lives. Then applying the correct equipment, strategies, and education so that the person with hearing loss can enjoy all aspects of his or her life.

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