Telehealth, Person-Centered Care, and Pizza: What Will be the Future of Hearing Care?

By Lise Lotte Bundesen

This year has ended in a flurry of activity for us here at Ida. In the last few months alone, we attended hearing care conferences in Canada, South Africa, the UK, and the USA. We also hosted a dynamic workshop in Denmark where academics, audiologists, and people with hearing loss joined us to develop new tools to strengthen person-centered care. Throughout the year, we presented and attended seminars, spoke to industry leaders, and connected with friends from all corners of the hearing care community. Revisiting the year and the many interesting conversations we’ve had inspires me to reflect on some of the important trends in audiology today and what I believe will shape the future of hearing care.

Technological advancements on every level are changing hearing care dramatically. So many things are already possible. Consider all the things hearing aids can do today − about the only thing they don’t do yet is order pizza. From a technological point of view, we're on the threshold of a hearing care transformation with great benefits for people with hearing loss.

This being said, we shouldn’t expect technology to “solve” the future single-handedly; the future isn’t about technology as much as it’s about how we use the technology. In writing about Marshall McLuhan's theories, John M. Culkin once said, “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” It isn’t just the abilities of our hearing care technologies that are important, but also, as McLuhan would say, the “environment” they create. How we use and respond to technology can define its benefit and effectiveness. A person-centered approach can help to guide the use of technology to ensure that the wants and needs of people with hearing loss are the priority. In my opinion, this is why technology must be coupled with person-centered care.

When the Ida Institute was founded 11 years ago, person-centered care was not mainstream. Today it’s a requirement in major health systems like the UK’s National Health Service and the USA’s Veterans Affairs. It’s also become a popular topic at audiology conferences, including this year’s World Congress of Audiology. I see its popularity growing even more in the coming years, driven to a large extent by necessity. With healthcare systems over-burdened, more effective hearing care is essential for our social and economic well-being and evidence shows that person-centered care leads to both better treatment and lower costs.

Telehealth is the other important trend I see developing rapidly and I expect it to be offered more widely year after year. Some may question if person-centered care is compatible with telehealth. I see it as congruent because, like person-centered care, it helps to put the person with hearing loss first. Telehealth is a way to connect people, and provide hearing care at times and in places convenient for them. Telehealth allows people to receive care from miles or continents away and is particularly helpful for clients with mobility issues or living outside of cities. The WHO affirms that well-designed telehealth schemes can improve healthcare access and outcomes, reduce demands on facilities, and create cost savings.

Telehealth — and technology in general — will change the role of hearing care professionals, but I see that as an opportunity. With technology enabling the automation of many processes, hearing care professionals can focus on communication, counseling, and catering to overall well-being. This is an added value that hearing care professionals bring to the clinician-client relationship that no technology can replace. The Ida Institute has developed tools allowing clinicians to integrate person-centered telehealth into their practice effectively. The tools help clients prepare for appointments and manage hearing loss in daily life.

One of the main challenges for the future of hearing healthcare remains removing the stigma of hearing loss. Today, about 5% of the global population has disabling hearing loss and about 33% of people over 65 are affected. Odds are high that each of us knows someone with hearing loss. If the issue is so close to us, why is there such stigma and what can we do about it?

There is of course no easy answer to this, but I believe that better self-management of hearing loss is one way to battle the stigma. This puts some of the power in the hands of people with hearing loss. The benefits of effective self-management include greater independence and quality of life. Leading a fulfilling life removes the tendency to emphasize hearing challenges and can contribute to normalizing hearing loss.

Advancing hearing technology will help to fight stigma as well because it allows for better, nicer looking and smarter devices that will become a connected part of the technology that we surround ourselves with. When hearing aids become capable of enough cool things beyond helping people hear there is a chance that people without hearing loss will also want the product and that this will contribute to reducing stigma. Lastly, educating the public about hearing loss is crucial. There is already good work being done in this field, but we need more. The WHO has taken the lead on raising awareness and putting hearing health on the public agenda. This work is of tremendous value for the hearing community.  

At the Ida Institute, we argue that people have the right not only to basic hearing care but to quality hearing care. This is why we created a label, Inspired by Ida, which hearing care professionals who have embraced person-centered practices can use to advertise their skills and dedication to quality hearing care. Over time, we hope that this will contribute to raising awareness about standards for quality hearing care.

So, am I optimistic about the future of hearing care? Yes, I’m optimistic that hearing care professionals will seize these new opportunities and — inspired by person-centered care — use them to propel themselves and the field forward. I’m optimistic that technological advances — including telehealth — will lessen the burden on people with hearing loss and their families. I’m also optimistic that we can over time diminish the stigma associated with hearing loss. But I am a little nervous my future hearing aids might order me the wrong toppings for my pizza, though…