Most of us have experienced the high-pitched wail of hearing loss. That ringing in your ears hours after a concert–or even just moments after you drop several dishes to the floor–signals the end of your range of perception at a certain frequency. But how often do you consult a doctor about it? Chances are, you’ll only consider visiting a doctor if matters persist for days or perhaps weeks.
Teleaudiology is going to change that way of thinking. The advance of teleaudiology services is currently paving the way for hearing tests and treatments to become online, video conferencing-powered consultations that are easy to schedule, easy to keep, and offer an instant diagnosis.
Teleaudiology is one of a group of emerging medical applications for video conferencing that could soon become part of an everyday health kit of precautions and check-ups we run with the ease and frequency of a smartphone video chat app.
What Is Teleaudiology?
Teleaudiology is simply the provision of hearing health services over a digital connection. In our example, the medium would be video conferencing, and the goal would be to replicate expert, face-to-face examinations, treatments, and ongoing care over a distance.
People using hearing aids have already started to benefit from the digital revolution. There are currently several mobile apps available that let users escape the tyranny of the often-tiny hearing aid controls by using their smartphones as a remote control. Furthermore, the Food and Drug Administration has already approved the use of digital technologies to administer remote programming of the common Cochlear Nucleus Implant System.
With those foundations in place, it is easy to imagine a future where hearing examinations can take place completely online. That would enable remote and rural patients to access care without having to travel to major cities. It would also radically increase the average urban patient’s access to care, since removing the need for an in-person visit means appointments can be scheduled around work and other commitments.
Patients might book their appointment using an app that’s as simple as a Google calendar, upload their patient history, and then speak with the doctor in-person from the privacy of their home–or anywhere else.
Unfortunately, there’s one drawback that still has to be solved.
The Audiometer Problem
As with many emerging technologies, there’s currently a cost factor keeping teleaudiology out of everyday use. To conduct an accurate examination, the patient needs access to an audiometer. Such products cost between $800 and $5,000 and generally aren’t available for use by the general public. If you’ve ever had a basic hearing test before, you’ll be familiar with how an audiometer works. It plays pure tones at varying levels of intensity in each ear, with the patient’s responses monitored by the practitioner.
The sensitivity of the product makes it hard to replicate with a smartphone device, and the cost is prohibitive for anyone without a diagnosed ongoing condition.
You could get around the problem by making audiometers available at urgent care centers and at the offices of local primary care physicians. We’ve seen other telehealth initiatives developed around such shared community hubs, including digital health networks that stretch across whole states. Under such an arrangement, a local healthcare worker could help a remote patient conduct a hearing exam in the presence of a video conferencing otolaryngologist (that’s an ear, nose, and throat doctor, to the layman).
For now, though, those practical impediments are keeping teleaudiology out of mainstream hearing care. However, with advances in broadband connectivity on the way and the constant evolution of smartphone technologies showing no signs of slowing, it surely won’t be long until we can schedule a hearing appointment at any time of the day or night with an expert located anywhere in the country.
Teleaudiology currently stands alongside a host of new video conferencing health care initiatives that belong in the “not-too-distant” category. These tend to have cost and hardware components that mark them out more as future tools than as practical, present-day ones. In that sense, teleaudiology belongs with teledentistry, which also has a major hardware problem at the moment, holographic telemedicine services, which currently require cumbersome visual displays, and online eye exams, which are awaiting better 4K video bandwidth.
The day is coming, however, when all these, and more, health services are available to us with the convenience of a smartphone chat app. The next generation of 5G mobile networks is expected to be rolled out across the U.S. this year and with them will come vastly improved internet speed and capacity. Those increases should eventually allow higher-grade visuals for video calls, as well as the implementation of new medical-grade imaging and modeling.
Such technologies have the potential to radically alter the way we interact with healthcare professionals. Just as on-demand entertainment platforms have transformed TV and film, so too could on-demand medicine change the how’s, where’s, and when’s of the medical field. We may never see the inside of a doctor’s office again.