As help for hearing loss become more sophisticated, more turn to specialists.
When Erica Lee finished her master's degree in clinical audiology and entered private practice in 1992, the tools of the profession were simple. "They handed you a hearing aid and a screwdriver. If a patient complained about fit or feedback [from the device], all you could do was pat them on the head and say, ‘You'll get used to it.' "
Sixteen years later, computerized software helps pinpoint the patient's diagnosis and calibrate tiny hearing aids for a customized clarity. Individualized settings automatically adjust the levels to accommodate the environment, background noise, stereophonic television sound, MP3 players and even Bluetooth.
But that's not all that's changed in a field focused on evaluating and helping patients with hearing, balance and inner ear disorders.
Since 2007, the allied health profession has required doctoral certification (including a yearlong externship) for licensure, which translates into more highly skilled and specialized practitioners. Most patients encounter one of the state's 200 audiologists at hospitals or otolaryngologists' (ENTs) offices; however, increasingly these professionals are opening their own private practices.
In 1999, Lee was among the first independent audiologists to establish a practice in Lafayette. A decade later, she opened Selective Hearing in Baton Rouge.
Despite their stigma as a sign of aging, hearing problems can appear at any age.
Besides speech delays due to hearing difficulty, one of the most common pediatric diagnoses involves central auditory processing (APD) problems. When a child cannot distinguish the teacher's voice from background noise, the result is usually seen in poor attention span, grades and parents searching for answers. Lee explains, "It's like listening to a rock star without a mike at an arena concert."
Once computerized tests diagnose APD, the solutions are relatively easy to implement, such as having the teacher wear a lapel mike connected to a receptor in the child's ear or broadcasting the lecture over existing classroom speakers.
Like APD, many hearing disorders involve a disruption along the pathway from the ears to the language center in the brain.
"So many people hear so many things well, they don't consider it a loss," says Lee. "It is a hearing problem. They hear certain sound just fine; but, they can't understand speech."
High-frequency hearing loss is also becoming increasingly prevalent. Genetics, age, rock concert amps, occupational exposure to loud noises, iPod usage and military or recreational gun blasts can damage the ear's delicate anatomy.
Over time, even young people may lose the ability to detect certain consonant sounds. Nearly any discussion sounds like a cell phone call with bad reception; the dialogue constantly fades in and out. They cobble the syllables together to make sense of the conversation. If high-frequency loss is caused by conductive nerve damage, surgery may repair the problem; sensory or neural hearing loss requires a hearing aid.
While some individuals receive hearing aids from retailers, patients who value the independent evaluation and opinion of specialists have been quick to seek out Selective Hearing.
"Unlike many national retail stores, we're not tied to a particular brand," says Selective Hearing's Baton Rouge office manager Tammy O'Callaghan. "Our audiologists' recommendations are based on each patient's need and lifestyle."
Furthermore, practice manager Tina Ray explains, "Patients wearing a hearing aid need to be evaluated annually to make changes and adjustments. It's a relationship we are building, not a sale that we make."
While insurance, Medicare and Medicaid provide varying reimbursement for screenings, services and products provided by certified audiologists, Lee says, "It's important to remember not all hearing health care providers are the same. If you have dizziness, hearing or balance issues, seeing an audiologist is not a luxury, it's a necessity."