The BIHIMA Manufacturers discuss the advantages for patients and professionals of advances in Telehealth, now an everyday reality for audiology.

Telehealth, the use of technology to enable healthcare professionals to remotely monitor data about their patients and deliver care, is no longer a futuristic vision but rather a steadily growing trend geared towards increased patient comfort and convenience, that in the audiology sector allows for the remote fitting and tuning of hearing technology.

Hearing technology manufacturers agree that the concept of telehealth in audiology is not an idea that they have imposed upon the market, but rather it is a direct response to external consumer developments. “Convenience and efficiency is a mega trend everywhere around us. We’ve seen a tremendous shift from physical visits in shops, banks, etc. to a one-click solution with minimum effort. In our domain this translates to the healthcare professional ensuring satisfaction and support regardless of the user’s physical availability. People live busy lives; long hours at work, on the move, or even just occupied at home. We are making sure the healthcare professional can move with them,” says Erik Harry Høydal, Senior Audiology Expert at Signia.

Dr Dave Fabry, Chief Innovations Officer at Starkey agrees that the trend is rooted in the consumer need for expediency: “By enabling hearing aid users to initiate a remote fine tuning request wherever and whenever they are having difficulties, they facilitate to serve their patients’ need 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  This is especially appealing to younger patients who don’t want to take time out of their busy schedules for minor adjustments, but also for older, sedentary patients who may need to depend on others for transportation for follow-up appointments.”

Tania Rodrigues, Education and Training Manager at Phonak also points out that remote care lowers barriers to hearing care access for harder-to-reach groups – for example, “people who live in remote or rural locations a great distance away from clinics or medical centres, can now access hearing care more readily.”

Another benefit, she claims, is that remote contact with healthcare professional is especially useful during the first few weeks when they may have queries or concerns.  “They no longer have to wait until their next follow up appointment, which can be anywhere between 2–4 weeks after their initial fitting, to relay their experiences in different acoustic environments.  The healthcare professional is able to address the needs of the client in a more timely way providing high quality care and the client is not left to muddle through the trial phase alone and in the dark.”

Not only this, but there is now an increasing expectation from patients that they will be co-creators of their own healthcare, a need that is well served by remote care functionality: “Consumer behaviours have evolved from being mainly trusting of marketing claims and following the recommendations of medical professionals, to more questioning, independent, active and proactively seeking and purchasing solutions and products that best suit them,” says Davina Omisore, Audiology Manager at Phonak.“In this way, the client and healthcare professional are equal partners, proactively working together to achieve optimal hearing outcomes.”

Patients come first

However, with all the focus on speed and efficiency, is this to the detriment of thorough and attentive patient care? Hearing technology manufacturers are convinced that telehealth services actually leads to better outcomes for patients.  “Being able to send information to their hearing care professional and in turn receive updates to the hearing instruments will help drive increased satisfaction with their provider and with the entire hearing care journey. It is exciting how this will unlock new ways for patients to get a truly personalized fitting from their care provider. Almost anywhere the patient is, the hearing care professional will be able to connect with them digitally, understand what is happening in real time and make adjustments that solve the exact challenge the patient is experiencing,” says Shaun Coghlan, Senior Product Manager at Unitron.

Tania Rodrigues from Phonak agrees that the capability to interact with patients in an environment that is authentic rather than simulated is game-changing. “If there are any adjustments to be made to the device programming, these can be done remotely in real time, and in real-world environments.  Live video call conferencing is used so that client and clinician can see each other, which is helpful should counselling or demonstrations be required (e.g. changing a wax filter). Sound quality adjustments are made directly within the environment in which the client is reporting a challenge.  So gone are the days of ‘trial and error’ or trying to artificially replicate an acoustic scenario within the clinical environment which the client reports as problematic.”

Ultimately, it is anticipated that this will drive patient engagement with hearing care services – and not only of those who already committed users of hearing technology, but also amongst those who teeter on the edges of accessing audiological support. Tania Rodrigues from Phonak continues, “It can take a few years for people to go from recognising that they are having hearing difficulty, to actually booking an appointment with an audiologist for a hearing assessment. Through our web-based hearing screener, people are empowered to gain a better understanding of their hearing challenges and receive a recommendation to seek further assessment, should the need be recognised.  Since the quick hearing screen can be done from the comfort of the home, people might be more inclined to check their hearing earlier without the pressure of having to book an appointment with a professional.”

Telehealth advantages for audiologists

Hearing technology manufacturers also believe that the benefits are not confined to the patient only – that healthcare professionals also gain greater knowledge and convenience in their practice. The hearing care professionals are the ones representing our devices to the end-user, so everything we create is aimed to support the healthcare professional in finding the best solution for the end-user,” says Erik Harry Høydal from Signia.

Indeed, says Dr Fabry from Starkey, telecare furnishes “hearing care professionals with the ability to extend their expertise beyond clinical environments to real-world listening environments where hearing aid users encounter difficulties that cannot be simulated.” Moreover, says Davina Omisore from Phonak, user customisations offer “valuable information for the healthcare professional who is then able to make more permanent fine-tuning adjustments to the prescription programming, again providing quality individualised care to highly satisfied clients.”

Ultimately, knowledge is power, and this capability “makes it possible for the hearing care professional to understand the areas where a patient is having successes and challenges on a much deeper level. As we introduce the ability to perform remote fittings, our customers will have the knowledge and context of what the patient is experiencing to be able to make the most of that remote appointment and offer truly personalized hearing care,” says Shaun Coghlan from Unitron.

In the end, he believes that the ball is in the court of healthcare professionals to respond (or not) to this trend: “What will be most influenced by remote appointments and telehealth is how hearing care professionals structure their business. These tools give the hearing care professionals the ability to rethink how they structure the hearing care experience and increase the value offered to patients.”

Erik Harry Høydal from Signia thinks that audiologists are, however, increasingly enthusiastic and motivated to shape their practices around the consumer expectation of remote care. “We’ve seen a big mindset change since the introduction of telecare four years ago. Back then I think many thought to themselves ‘Why do I need this? I’m doing just fine’, whereas now we see more and more interest in offering these services. It’s a natural shift as end-users are expecting more of these kinds of services, but it can also be seen as an answer to the OTC (over-the-counter) ‘threat’. The competence lays with the hearing care professional, and through remote tools, they can offer both great service and knowledge in their office and remotely.”

Certainly all manufacturers are at pains to make clear that this is a ‘both/and’ scenario. Remote care “should by no means replace the professional services of the healthcare professional, rather it should extend their reach,” says Oliver Townend, Senior Audiology Expert at Widex. Dr Dave Fabry from Starkey agrees that this technology simply “augments the face-to-face relationships between professional and patient with “virtual” care, when appropriate.”

A remote future

As the reach of smart technology and big data extends, it is clear that telehealth is not a trend that is going away. Indeed, it is safe to assume that healthcare professionals will need to be agile and reactive in response to the rapid rate of change. “The future will for sure bring more innovative ways of interaction between the healthcare professional and the end-user, both via traditional setups like we see now but also in the evolution of cloud based services. There will of course be a growing interest of using remote appointments and telehealth. Having access to the healthcare professional and getting help quicker than before is expected and will also result in a faster and more positive adoption of hearing solutions,” says Oliver Townend from Widex.

“Eventually the user and the healthcare professional will be able to exchange data and fitting adjustments via the cloud,” he continues, “to ensure that best personalization for the individual user and ultimately difficult listening environments will be less challenging to overcome, because data about the situation and the difficulty will be more easily shared via the remote service platform.”

 

About BIHIMA

The British Irish Hearing Instrument Manufacturers Association (BIHIMA) represents in the UK and Ireland the world’s leading hearing instrument manufacturers. We work in partnership with other professional, trade, regulatory and consumer organisations within the health care and charitable sectors. Our goal is to raise awareness of the benefits of hearing well, making available the very latest in hearing technology aligned to consumer and hearing healthcare priorities to enhance the lives of those affected.

This article was published in Audio Infos, February 2020: