Year-end thoughts on hearing: Here are mine. What are yours?

By David H. Kirkwood

It is a traditional year-end duty of an editor, whether in print or online, to comment sagaciously on the year that is nearing its end while also offering some perspicacious thoughts on what lies ahead in the incoming year. Being dutiful by nature, I will attempt to take on those tasks, though not without first issuing a few caveats.

While I have been closely following the whole spectrum of topics related to hearing, hearing loss, hearing conservation, and hearing care for more years than I would like to admit, so too have many of you who read this. Therefore, while my opinions are informed, they are no more so than those of many readers of this blog. In fact, unlike me, most of you have first-hand experience with hearing loss, either as providers of hearing care or as hearing care consumers. For that reason, I welcome any observations you may have about 2011—or on my assessment of some of the key trends.

I would also point out the folly of hazarding a guess as to what’s coming down the road. After all, as Yogi Berra (allegedly) once said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

So, now that I have sufficiently lowered your expectations, I will perform my duty.

 

LOOKING BACK

At the risk of being boring, the longer I cover hearing care, the more I am struck by how little changes. Last year, as usual, hearing aids got a little better and a little more expensive. And, just about the usual 25% or so of Americans whose lives would be enhanced by wearing them actually did so.

This continuing inability of the industry to move the needle is frustrating. However, it’s important to remember that many millions of people in the U.S. and Canada are wearing hearing aids. And, while most of them aren’t 100% satisfied with their hearing aids’ performance, users generally recognize that the devices are allowing them to lead more fulfilling lives.

So, all of you who are dedicated to improving hearing in your community should take pride in what you and your colleagues are accomplishing—even if collectively the effort to prevent or overcome hearing loss falls short of our goals.

 

Signs of progress

Despite the chronic sluggishness of the hearing aid market, there were some trends that may bear fruit in the future in terms of improving the hearing health in North America.

One was the growing attention being paid to research reports about the high rate of hearing loss, especially among people under age 20. While I can’t prove it, I am certain that the amount of coverage the media gave last year to the alarming incidence of hearing loss was unprecedented. Surely, this will lead more people to turn down their iPods and take other steps to protect their hearing before treatment is required.

Increasing awareness of hearing loss should also result in more people getting their hearing tested—including among generations who in the past might have believed they were too young to have a hearing loss.

Another area of good news in 2011 was the increasing availability of induction loops in various regions of the country. As I’ve noted before on this blog, there has been a sharp spurt in public awareness of the benefits of looping churches and synagogues, theaters, concert and lecture halls, airports, and the television-viewing rooms in people’s homes.

While public facilities in most communities do not yet have hearing loops, favorable—frequently rapturous–word of mouth is spreading to those deprived communities from towns and counties where looping is commonplace. Moreover, national media such as The New York Times, National Public Radio, AARP News, and Scientific American ran prominent stories last year in praise of loop systems.

If the looping movement continues to grow, as I believe it will, there will be a secondary positive effect even beyond enabling wearers of telecoil-equipped hearing aids to enjoy sermons, concerts, plays, and not missing their plane because they couldn’t hear the boarding announcement at their local airport. By increasing the number of situations and places where hearing aids are effective, loops will add to the value of hearing aids and increase user satisfaction. That, in turn, will improve public perception of hearing aids and motivate unaided hard-of-hearing people to try them.

 

LOOKING AHEAD

Actually, I guess in my previous paragraph I have already begun my forecast for 2012. I do believe it will be a year in which growth in looping will accelerate.

Consumer-provider alliances

Another trend that I see for 2012 is the growth of partnerships between consumer advocates for better hearing and hearing care providers. Indeed, one reason the looping movement has taken off is that on both the local and the national level people with hearing loss and people who treat hearing loss have joined forces. The most notable example is the successful alliance between the Hearing Loss Association of America and the American Academy of Audiology to promote the use of loops.

There are many other areas in which I hope and believe practitioners and patients will work together. That’s already happening in the continuing effort to persuade Congress to pass the hearing aid tax credit act. A large coalition of industry, professional, and consumer advocacy groups has steadily built support for the measure. While it’s unlikely that Congress will pass anything in 2012, since it’s a presidential election year, when the tax credit does become a reality, it will be as a result of the broad constituency backing it.

 

Hearing Hearinghealthmatters.org

That takes me to a topic that is especially close to my heart: Hearinghealthmatters.org. When the group of founding partners launched this blog in April 2011, we had a variety of goals. One of mine was to create a forum that would bring together the users and the providers of hearing health for the benefit of both groups.

In my previous job editing a monthly journal for hearing professionals, I was keenly aware that my publication was doing nothing that directly served consumers. Few of them read it or contributed to it. In theory, helping people hear better was the ultimate bottom line for all of us who worked on or subscribed to that magazine. Yet, somehow it seemed that consumers were left out of the picture.

One reason I find my work at Hearinghealthmatters.org so gratifying is that we have been able to publish information of value to consumers. In both the Hearing Views and Hearing News Watch sections, most of the content is relevant both to consumers and to practitioners. Many of our Hearing Views are written by guest authors who know the challenges of hearing loss from personal experience.

Probably our blog’s greatest success in reaching out to consumers came with the addition of The Better Hearing Consumer to Hearinghealthmatters.org. The insights of Gael Hannan, a gifted writer who has had hearing loss since childhood, have quickly made her blog one of our most read.

What does this all have to do with 2012? A couple of things: One is that it means that our blog has a lot of potential to increase its readership in the coming year. After all, there are more than 30 million people with hearing loss in the United States alone, and hearing health matters to all of them.

But, on a broader front, I think that all of us whose mission is to improve hearing health will achieve the most success in 2012 and beyond if we never forget that we are all in this together—consumers, practitioners, manufacturers, educators, researchers, and, yes, bloggers.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

In closing, let me make two requests of readers:

First, please tell us what you think were the key developments of last year and what you predict for 2012.

Second, have a happy, healthy, and productive New Year!