The Future of Aural Rehabilitation is Telehealth
The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare a litany of gaping inadequacies and shortfalls in our systems across industries, fields of medicine included. If Americans knew that we lacked adequate capacity and infrastructure to care for a medical condition closely linked to vision loss, dementia, balance impairment, social disengagement, and increased falls, there would undoubtedly be an outcry for innovation. With that said, this reality exists, and hearing loss is the condition we must prioritize to quickly modernize our approach to care for over 35 million impacted children and adults.
With the number of practicing audiologists disproportionately lower than the universe of potential patients, our profession must be bold and aggressive in expanding our reach beyond the traditional physical office environment. Hearing care and diagnosis has long been connected with direct need to buy expensive hearing aids in order to address problems. In fact, most audiological rehabilitation services today are bundled into the cost of the hearing aids, even those popping up on the internet.
Telehealth is an umbrella term for many different types of services in audiology; these may include hearing evaluations, hearing aid and tinnitus consultations, family and communication partner counseling on communication strategies, as well as technical hearing aid programming, troubleshooting, and guidance. Currently, an Audiologist must be licensed in each individual state to offer telehealth service, as there is no universal licensure compact. Developing infrastructure for a successful, full-service telehealth business is expensive, time-consuming, and an overall deterrent to providing virtual care from small businesses and small private practices — especially in the midst of a healthcare and economic crisis. In fact, with many governmental services temporarily closed due to COVID-19 and social distancing measures, it’s almost impossible to implement telehealth practices without having prepared in advance.
Audiologists are unable to independently bill Medicare for aural rehabilitation services provided to patients. By bundling rehabilitation services into the cost of hearing aids, the field of audiology has allowed for its strong foundation in counseling and scientific education to lack valuable, independent impact. While lobbying for necessary billing codes needs to be a priority for the longevity of our profession, our healthcare crisis and physical office closures due to COVID-19 have illuminated a path for the future of aural rehabilitation and leveraging telehealth opportunities. Medical practices evaluating and treating hearing-impaired patients need to prepare for inevitable future closures with a rehabilitative telehealth platform and program in place. This may include providing extended, out-of-warranty service and virtual appointments for increased continuity of care, with an out-of-pocket pay structure. Or, virtual appointments can be utilized as an alternative option for traditional follow-up visits if a patient is not physically able to come into the office due to distance, mobility challenges, work conflicts, travel, or lack of motivation.
The distribution of life-changing aural rehabilitation relies on licensed audiologists who practice ethical, unbiased, patient-centered care. Telehealth is not only a valuable counseling and practice management tool for existing patients, but also a way to further our profession’s outreach and accessibility. Let us pave the new road in innovative rehabilitation together.