Challenging Hearing Aid Technology and Hearing Services in The Aftermath of COVID-19 - Attune
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Challenging Hearing Aid Technology and Hearing Services in The Aftermath of COVID-19

COVID-19 has affected our lives in one way or another, but people with hearing loss have been hit particularly hard. The pandemic has undeniably uncovered that we live in a world designed by the hearing, for the hearing. 

Hearing aid technology and healthcare services for the hearing disabled were – and still are – struggling to keep up with the “new normal”. No one was truly prepared for the sudden introduction of mask mandates, social distancing and lockdowns, and a shift to virtual meetings and social gatherings. 

Over the past two years, we have seen the lack of inclusiveness and barriers to access increase, culminating in the breakdown of the mental, physical, and social health of far too many community members.

Having a hearing loss at the best of times is challenging. Having a hearing loss during COVID-19 was no joke. According to a study undertaken at the Maulana Azad Medical College, Delhi, India, which examined the Challenges of the Deaf and Hearing Impaired in the Masked World of COVID-19,  the most significant issues for individuals with hearing loss during COVID-19 included: 

  • A lack of information, 
  • Face masks making communication difficult, 
  • Social distancing and lockdowns affecting their physical and mental health, 
  • Barriers preventing access to the health-care system. 

Hearing Loss During Covid-19: What Were The Challenges?

  • Lack of information 

During COVID-19, it became evident that information and resources provided to the public are not always accessible for hearing impaired people. A general lack of sign language specialists and the inability to rely on lip-reading to facilitate communication due to the widespread adaptation of face masks meant that hearing-impaired and deaf persons often found themselves deprived of reliable information. 

Some were initially optimistic about incorporating sign language interpretation in televised public health briefings. But this initial optimism soon faded and was eventually replaced by the harsh realisation that many disabled people, the deaf and hard of hearing included, would be excluded from most new and emerging forms of communication. 

The mainstream adaptation of virtual meetings and gatherings, think Zoom, Facetime and Clubhouse, probably hit the hardest. If you have a hearing loss, you have bigger issues than figuring out when to switch the “mute’ button on and off to avoid awkward situations. 

People with hearing loss tend to use visual cues to facilitate communication. It turns out these tech-based gatherings are ill-suited to the needs of a demographic that relies so heavily on lip-reading and facial cues, as well as quality captioning or live interpretation.

  • Introduction of face masks

We’ve already touched on this issue, but it’s worth digging a little deeper because face coverings cause multiple issues for hard of hearing and deaf people. 

Not only do they cause difficulties in reading facial expressions and using lip-reading to supplement communication, but face masks also decrease speech volume and make words sound muffled. Face masks act as acoustic filters that can reduce sound levels by 3-4 dB for a common medical mask and up to 12 dB for N95 masks

And then there’s the practical matter of wearing hearing aids and face masks.

In a recent survey, 66 per cent of the hearing aid wearers found it difficult to use their hearing aid with a face mask. 

  • Social distancing and lockdowns

The introduction of social distancing measures, followed by lockdowns and quarantines, forced already marginalised populations even further into isolation. 

Those who struggled to communicate due to a hearing impairment before the pandemic now had to cope with physical distancing requirements that made a face-to-face exchange with others even harder. 

Previously, to avoid confusion, many people with a hearing loss, including hearing aid wearers, would rather schedule appointments, do their groceries or attend meetings in person, as opposed to on the phone or via a live stream. But due to lockdowns and social distancing requirements, these things now needed to be done on the phone or online, which had wide-ranging effects on the deaf and hearing impaired. 

Unable to participate in conversations, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many people with hearing loss feel stigmatised, lonely and excluded from day-to-day life – with horrible consequences. Increased rates of chronic stress, depression and anxiety were only the tip of the iceberg.

  • Accessing the healthcare system

The past two years have made it sufficiently clear that local hearing health care services were not prepared to support COVID-19 conditions. To be fair, this wasn’t entirely their fault. Most hearing healthcare services, including hearing tests, hearing aid trials, hearing aid programming and repair, did not fall under medical emergency services, meaning they weren’t readily available to individuals with hearing loss.

Yet, in the survey above, 72.6 per cent of hearing aid wearers reported that they were wearing their hearing aids a lot more now that they spent more time with their immediate family, increased their TV consumption and had to speak on the phone more often. Those reportedly using their hearing aids less explained this was mainly due to a lack of social interactions.

Under normal circumstances, hearing aids are programmed to the needs of the individual in a hearing clinic by an experienced hearing care professional. 

This was, of course, shut down during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Due to limited access to audiological services, most hearing aid users couldn’t attend important follow-ups for their hearing aid programming, which subsequently caused them to experience various issues.

Tele-Audiology Supplements Current Hearing Care But Hearing Aid Technology is Lacking 

During COVID-19, many hearing health care providers quickly pivoted to teleaudiology (also referred to as audiology telemedicine) as an alternative to traditional, face-to-face hearing services. 

While remote care appointments faced much resistance and scepticism from many audiologists before the pandemic, it now seemed like the natural solution and allowed patients to seek care through online platforms and smartphone apps. 

Amid lockdown, these services were commonly provided via Zoom or Skype, which are freely and readily available. However, remote maintenance and programming services were still limited to patients who had previously chosen hearing aids compatible with the remote care smartphone apps.

This highlights a clear need for hearing devices that are no longer solely devoted to amplifying sound and improving a person’s hearing but also help with everyday tasks that may be more challenging to a person with hearing limitations. 

Making these hearing aids readily available is mainly in the hands of hearing aid manufacturers, who decide how their hearing aid technology addresses common communication barriers, whether they are the result of a pandemic or not.

But hearing care providers also need to rise to the occasion and ensure patients do not only have access to the care they need but are provided with personalised solutions that withstand the ongoing changes in how we communicate and socialise. This needs to include, but not be limited to, the wearing of facemasks and 

other personal protective equipment without becoming a communication barrier. 

Have you missed your yearly hearing test because of COVID-19? Are you due for a hearing aid maintenance service, or are you interested in upgrading your hearing aid? Give us a call on 1300 736 702 or get in touch online to book an appointment at your nearest Attune Hearing Clinic. 

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