Eye doctors can help identify early hearing loss in at-risk patients, ensuring they get treatment

If our eyesight was failing, most of us would go see an eye doctor. And if our hearing was failing, most of us would…put off treatment for years, risking further deterioration and depression? It may seem hard to believe, but that’s exactly what the research indicates.

Hearing loss is one of the most prevalent chronic conditions in the U.S., affecting 48 million people – including one in three people over age 65. Yet people with hearing loss wait an average of seven years before seeking help, according to the Center for Hearing and Communication (CHC). These statistics are even more troubling given that a study by the National Council on the Aging (NCOA) linked untreated hearing loss to depression and social isolation in seniors.

Why are people avoiding seeking treatment for hearing loss? And why are eye doctors in a unique position to help these patients? Read on to find out.

Barriers to seeking treatment for hearing loss

The fact is, vision loss is easier to spot and treat than hearing loss. Corrective lenses and cataract surgery can restore vision back to normal. However, that’s not the case with treatment for hearing loss. Even though the technology has improved greatly in the past decade – 3D printing can now produce customized hearing aids for patients in a matter of hours – hearing aids cannot fix the damage to the inner ear that causes hearing loss.

1 in 5 seniors reported that wearing a hearing aid would make them feel old or embarrassed.

There’s also an element of denial and embarrassment that affects those suffering from hearing loss. More than two-thirds of the respondents in the NCOA study said their hearing was not bad enough to require a hearing aid. Cost was a factor for about half of them. And one in five respondents said “it would make me feel old,” or “I’m too embarrassed to wear one.”

Hearing and vision loss may go hand in hand

Many patients simply may not know that they have a hearing problem, or where to go to find out. Only 16 percent of doctors routinely screen for hearing loss, according to the CHC. This is where eye doctors come in.

In aging patients, there is high comorbidity between vision loss and hearing loss.

“In many cases, if your vision is poor, so is your hearing,” Brian Conrey, co-founder and vice president of Vision Hearing Alliance, told Primary Care Optometry News (PCON).

In the patient population seen by optometrists, “there is high comorbidity between vision loss and hearing loss,” added Victor Bray, PhD, dean of the college of audiology at Salus University in Pennsylvania. “In many cases, the vision and hearing care overlap due to some common disease source or syndrome.” He added that this can be true not only in the geriatric population but also the pediatric population.

More eye doctors offering audiology services

An increasing number of eye care practices have discovered that offering hearing services is an effective way to better care for their existing patients, increase loyalty and referrals, and provide a steady secondary revenue stream.

“Patients love our service,” Mike G. Wallace, O.D., told PCON. “If you identify a hearing impairment for the first time, patients don’t know where to go to. They are much more comfortable with a professional referral than with a commercial establishment or people who advertise. They also like the fact that their optometrist has vetted the different hearing providers.”

Dr. Wallace rented office space to an audiologist for a few years before deciding to partner with Vision Hearing Alliance to purchase his own equipment. An affiliated entity, Hearing Professionals of America, provides the personnel, the patient care, and the marketing. Dr. Wallace’s staff conducts a 45-second screening with an earphone audiometer, free of charge to patients.

One optometrist refers 6 to 8 patients a week to hearing services, for which the conversion rate to a hearing aid purchase is 20%.

The optometrist refers six to eight patients a week to hearing services, which represents nearly a full day for the audiologist who is onsite one day a week. The conversion rate from a hearing consultation to the purchase of a hearing aid is 20 percent, he added, and the optometrist benefits from the hearing aid sale.

“The goal of the model is to raise the level of patient care that the optometrist or ophthalmologist provides in a town,” Conrey told PCON. “Most patients have not had a hearing screening usually since kindergarten or the fourth or fifth grade.”

For more on this topic, see Why Back-to-School Vision and Hearing Exams Are Vital

Some eye doctors who have added audiology services to their practices feared that patients would be suspicious or resentful that their eye doctor was trying to sell them something. In fact, the response has been just the opposite. “What I found instead was acceptance and appreciation,” one ophthalmologist told PCON. “When we tell them we offer hearing services, they are relieved to know they can come to us. They surmise that a place they can trust for their eyes is a place they can trust for their ears.”

For more ways to meet your patients’ needs, download our new eBook, Building Your Dry Eye Center of Excellence — 7 Keys to Success

Did you know that the same patient education technology that helps you effectively communicate complex eye care topics also offers audiology content?


Visit our website to learn more and check out our featured audiology videos!