Hearing loss is one of the top issues that frequently affects Veterans nationwide, but, until recently, many Veterans living in rural areas have had challenges in receiving needed hearing care. Effective hearing care includes careful evaluation, a range of appropriate interventions, and the provision of the best technology available to help them.
To address this, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is proactively using the latest in telehealth technology to reach rural Veterans.
“Expanded use of innovative technology is increasing access points to hearing care in remote areas, enabling telehealth providers to expand their reach to patients and their families in satisfying and effective ways,” said Chad Gladden, audiology telehealth coordinator for the Audiology and Speech Pathology National Program Office.
Audiology Store and Forward Telehealth (SFT) modality now being implemented through a pilot program in targeted areas includes automated audiometric test results and captured images that are compiled by trained personnel at remote sites and then sent to audiologists at VA Medical Centers for analysis.
The original sites for the Audiology SFT pilot program were medical centers in Nashville, TN; Bay Pines, FL; Topeka, KS, and San Francisco, CA. An estimated 400 Veterans have now been tested through this pilot.
The test results evaluated by audiologists determine the level and type of hearing loss and treatment, need for further evaluation, and/or recommended follow up. Education of the Veteran patient-family is always included in the treatment plan.
At selected points in the patient visit, highly trained technicians using the proper equipment can provide important patient information to an audiologist from a remote site. The technology can capture images of the ear drum, ear canal, and external ear–information that is required in an audiogram. The information and images are stored in a pdf file which is uploaded into the Electronic Health Record (EHR) and sent to the audiologist for analysis at a designated clinic.
The success of the program is now motivating other staff in new locations to consider SFT services. Eleven (11) new facilities have requested similar hardware setups in order to expand their programs, with continued expansion planned in FY 2020. Additional telehealth services include hearing evaluations, hearing aid fittings and follow-up, auditory rehabilitation, and tinnitus management classes.
The Audiology and Speech Pathology National Program Office is committed to working with manufacturers, clinicians, administrative and support staff, patients, and diverse stakeholders in identifying and testing innovative technology to make “better speech and hearing” more than a hope, but a reality for thousands of Veterans. Despite the financial, infrastructure, and human resources required to navigate the complex processes of planning, providing, and evaluating hearing telehealth technologies, this investment by VA is worth the effort.
“Ask any Veteran who is given the ability to hear better, and they will tell you it enables them to enjoy life more fully,” Gladden said.
Chad Gladden is an audiology telehealth coordinator for the Audiology and Speech Pathology National Program Office.