Internet technology provides wonderful tools for research - consider how our lives have changed since the search engine became an everyday solution. In the past 20 years, the Internet experience has changed, opening the doors to more and more information on just about any subject. From Usenet group discussions in the early 90s to the rise of search engines in the 2000s to the power of social media today, the volume of available information on just about any topic is staggering.
While there's an enormous amount of quality information out there, much of it arrives piecemeal or lacking context. For the experienced researcher, it takes time and effort to get their arms around and understand something like a medical condition. This due diligence is necessary; without it, people fall into a trap of making assumptions about a condition without having the full knowledge of a trained professional. This is particularly true for individuals with hearing loss, and it's a cause of concern for those of us in the hearing healthcare field.
Most healthcare providers encourage patients to educate themselves on a condition or concern - it opens the door to a stronger, more informed dialog. Research, however, is not a replacement for a professional diagnosis. The misinterpretation that may result from such research is one of the major issues facing practitioners across all fields. For hearing healthcare professionals, this is particularly critical, as the independent purchase of hearing instruments and assistive devices continues to become easier.
In a best-case scenario, self-diagnosis just leads to wasted time and money for the patient. In a worst-case scenario, this overlooks or downplays some problems while exacerbating others. Technology has evolved to allow for at-home research and purchasing, however hearing instruments have become far more advanced compared to just a few years ago. With situation-specific configuration, advanced digital signal processing, multi-memories and device connectivity, hearing instruments are able to adapt to situations and connect to other assistive devices that trying to purchase these advanced instruments via the internet is a very unwise option
In the hearing healthcare field, professionals often encourage patients to learn as much about their hearing loss and treatment options, as possible. If they can educate themselves, it is easier to explain the finer details and creates a stronger sense of understanding and greater confidence in decision making process.
A professional's perspective is absolutely necessary in understanding the nuances of the hearing-impaired person and their specific life style - and when it comes with an emphasis on professional-patient communication and patient care, everyone wins. Education through self-starting research is a fantastic element of assessment, but success depends on the context of how it's applied.
For Audiologists like myself, this is how an ideal situation plays out:
1) A woman notices that she has had some problems with her hearing. Perhaps it's is saying "what" that becomes more frequent, or it's simply noticing that the volume on the TV or phone needs to be turned up a little higher. She takes an online hearing health questionnaire, and the results show that there might be concern of hearing loss. The woman makes note of her symptoms and researches each of these online. She comes to the conclusion that they point to a specific hearing problem, and there may be other factors at play that she hasn't noticed.
2) An appointment is made with an Audiologist and the woman comes prepared with a description of symptoms. After a hearing evaluation, the woman and the audiologist discuss results and issues, and what the most effective course of action is. Because the woman has educated herself, she's able to better understand the Audiologist's professional descriptions and ask appropriate questions.
3) With this better understanding, the woman and the Audiologist select the best solution for her lifestyle and listening environments.
In this scenario, technology and effective online research helped the woman connect the dots between symptoms and possible outcomes. She was better prepared with questions for the audiologist and was able to make a more-informed choice in the care recommended by the professional.
That's the ideal scenario - research as a foundation for patient knowledge prior to visit. On the other hand, if a patient chooses to skip the appointment, it can lead to a number of problems. Here's an example of the situation that hearing healthcare professionals want to avoid:
1) A man begins experiencing some difficulty with hearing, and goes to a local hearing health care practice to get an evaluation.
2) The man looks at the evaluation results, returns home and purchases pre-programmed hearing instruments online, rather than through his hearing healthcare provider - losing the option to customize the device for his specific hearing needs and settings. He begins to utilize the instruments after only reading the instructions and finds only nominal relief.
What's the problem with this situation? Online ordering of pre-programmed instruments cannot realistically factor in all of the unique circumstances and fine tuning variables for an individual. This could lead to gradual adverse effects, impacting quality of life for the short-term and the long-term while opening the door to bigger issues. The bottom line is that there's an inherent risk if one does not access the professional expertise of a hearing healthcare provider when making these purchase decisions.
The bigger question may actually be "Why would someone choose to self-diagnose or order hearing instruments via the internet instead of going to the professional?" Cost is generally the number one reason individuals turn to the internet for their purchase of hearing instruments. While these individuals may feel they are saving money what they do not realize is that inevitability it will cost them more as they will pay for every service that will need to be rendered for the instruments. , It is up to us - from the audiologist, hearing instruments specialists to Patient Care Coordinators to demonstrate the true value that the professional can add by putting patient care and customer service as our top priority. Only through this can we begin to demonstrate the value that is added by the professional component.
When you visit a professionally licensed hearing health professional, you can expect an individualized patient centered approach. We encourage our patients to research and educate themselves: come in, ask questions, and voice concerns. In return, the hearing health care industry must continue to emphasize patient care and customer service - and as technology pushes the boundaries with continued advancements in connectivity and adaptability, one-on-one patient centered care will become more important than ever.
The Internet is a fantastic thing and without it, individuals would find it difficult to conduct research on hearing problems. However, when technology evolves quickly - and it always does - it's up to the hearing health care professionals to resolve the gap between technology, patient care, and communication. That's the only way patients can get the best of all worlds.
Guest Blogger : Dr. Thomas Tedeschi, Vice President of Franchise Development for Sonus , is an audiologist and trainer of hearing health professionals. He has over 30 years of experience in the hearing healthcare field.