Giving ear to the future

By Helle Gjønnes Møller

When Heraclitus concluded that the only constant in life is change, he probably wasn’t thinking of over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids, remote fitting support, or stem cell-based medicine. Yet, his statement from 500 years BC is as accurate today as ever. Across fields like computing, medicine, communications, and materials science, the world has taken mammoth leaps and now looks radically different from just one generation ago.

Emerging technologies are changing the way we eat, sleep, work, and even date – and new healthcare innovations allow us to rethink the way we look after our bodies. This, of course, is also true in hearing healthcare. But what then are the implications for audiology education – and for the next generation of practitioners? And where does it leave person-centered care (PCC)?

These were some of the questions we explored in the Future Hearing Journeys report earlier this year. Based on the findings, many of Ida’s academic partners have since been working to prepare for what lies ahead.

In a stage of transition

Patricia McCarthy is Professor Emeritus at Rush University in Chicago, Illinois. According to McCarthy, hearing healthcare is indeed in a stage of transition. “In addition to the changes in hearing aid delivery with new OTC offerings, patients are more overwhelmed than ever due to the pandemic.

"But while some hearing care professionals are resistant and take a ‘sky-is-falling’ posture, most audiology students are actually ready to embrace the future and consider technology a prerequisite to success in any 21st century profession. Students aren’t threatened by technology; they simply see it as a way of life,” says McCarthy.

Top five audiology skills of the future

The Future Hearing Journeys report identified the following top five future skills for audiologists, based on input from academics and students:

  1. More tech savviness and abilities to use telehealth platforms
  2. More focus on counseling, less focus on product
  3. PCC skills including online capabilities
  4. Understanding hearing loss as part of overall health
  5. Greater awareness of aspects like health literacy, including social, economic, and cultural factors

Enhancing telehealth in Illinois

At Rush University, a series of initiatives have been introduced to help students develop many of these skills. For example, they are enhancing their telehealth offerings, expanding their outreach to underserved communities through a new faculty-led outreach clinic, and increasing access to hearing care within their urban medical center. Student training will be an integral part of this expansion, instilling person-centered care in future practitioners through a health disparities lens.

Rethinking programs in Brazil

At the University of São Paulo – Bauru Campus (USP-Bauru), Associate Professor Deborah Ferrari is also a strong believer that audiology programs need a rethink. This will allow students to develop the skills and competencies relevant for the future.

At USP-Bauru, they have worked with data from the Future Hearing Journeys report to substantiate the creation of what they’ve dubbed the ImPACT-Lab. Under the coordination of Professors Dagma Abramides and Deborah Ferrari, this innovative, transdisciplinary project involves speech-language pathology, audiology, dentistry, and medical students and faculty. Through a combination of immersive virtual reality, data mining, and UX design, the ImPACT-Lab will enable new forms of interaction between students, professors, and patients – to help students develop cognitive and attitudinal skills, such as empathy.

Remote support in Utah

At Utah State University, their audiology program is prepping students to provide tele-audiology services to patients who need or prefer remote appointments.

Karen Muñoz, Department Head and Professor of Audiology, explains, “Specifically, online hearing aid appointments are used for adult fitting follow-up for programming, troubleshooting, and counseling. We offer online pediatric parent education and support after hearing aid fitting and provide remote cochlear implant programming by sending the equipment to the client beforehand and connecting in real-time.”

In addition, the clinical faculty at Utah State has implemented a regular tele-audiology meeting to explore opportunities to expand services – and developed tele-audiology protocols to help students prepare for clinic and to improve consistency in procedures for tele-audiology services.

Tech savvy in South Africa

In general, the current cohort of students are highly tech savvy but sometimes lack people skills as they mostly interacted with others from behind a screen – even more so now, due to the pandemic. Faheema Mahomed-Asmail, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology at the University of Pretoria (UP), says, “While in some cases this may work in their favor, working with people also requires a personal touch. As indicated in the Future Hearing Journeys report, with the likely possibility of OTCs becoming the norm, developing person-centered skills is vital for future audiologists to create value for their clients.

“At UP, we are in the process of including and encouraging PCC by providing students with learning opportunities during formal class and practical training. All our senior students have recently completed the Inspired by Ida course and many of them have shown a keen interest towards further enhancing these skills.”

Embedding PCC in the UK

Charlotte Rogers, Senior Lecturer in Audiology at De Montfort University in the UK, also believes that the key to future practice is embedding support for PCC in curricula and setting the correct expectation. “Studying audiology is emotionally, socially, and financially demanding. It is essential that we develop a workforce that offers PCC at the forefront of the opportunities brought about by tech. Students are ready and excited to meet that challenge.”

A golden opportunity for PCC

At Rush University, Patricia McCarthy sees a similar trend, “Students come to the profession with a person-centered mindset from the start. They expect our approach to be person- and family-centered. They often report that the actual testing and amplification processes are not nearly as challenging as counseling patients and their families.

“We have a golden opportunity to seize the moment. By providing high quality, person-centered care to our patients, we can serve them and their families without fear that hearing healthcare will become obsolete. Our job is to ensure that our students are educated and trained with a PCC focus – so they are prepared for whatever the future brings,” concludes McCarthy.

In the coming issues of our Academic Update, we will dive deeper into some of these exciting projects and continue our journey to explore the future of hearing healthcare while helping stakeholders navigate the changing landscape.