New project helps UArizona boost access to hearing health care

By Penny Duran and Mikayla Mace Kelley,
University Communications

Jan. 4, 2024

Man trying on hearing aid
Anyone in need of hearing health care services is encouraged to contact the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and the Hard of Hearing.

Hearing aids can often be prohibitively expensive for people without insurance, sometimes costing as much as $3,000. In response, the University of Arizona Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences has partnered with the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and the Hard of Hearing to establish the Hearing Healthcare Assistance Project, which provides free hearing health care for eligible people 21 and older lacking insurance.

“When patients cannot communicate well with others, it can lead to feelings of isolation and depression,” said Amy Wheeler, an audiologist at the UArizona Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences Clinic who led the university’s effort to join the state project. “Not being able to communicate can also lead to difficulties with employment, which in turn can have a large impact on that patient and their loved ones. It is a heartbreaking thing to know what treatment would lead to a great outcome for your patient and not be able to get it to them due to cost. With this project, there is a new way for me to get my patients the treatment they need.”

In 2021, Arizona State University received a donation of new hearing aids but did not have funding for testing and fitting. The Arizona Commission for the Deaf and the Hard of Hearing stepped in and developed the Hearing Healthcare Assistance Project to fund diagnostic audiology, hearing aid fitting and follow-up appointments, and provide free aural rehabilitation, establishing this project. Northern Arizona University joined the project in January 2023, and UArizona joined in the fall.  

Anyone in need of hearing health care services is encouraged to contact the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and the Hard of Hearing, which was established in 1977 to improve the quality of life for deaf and hard of hearing residents and serves as the statewide bureau of information referral center for issues related to people with hearing loss. Those eligible are referred by the commission to the nearest state university participating in the project. In scenarios where applicants already have access to hearing health resources, the project can also assist them in navigating their options.

The UArizona clinic offers support from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. At these appointments, patients meet with a student as their primary provider and an audiologist professor is there for support. There, they will focus on diagnosis, counseling, hearing aid selection and fitting, as well as follow-up care. There is also a weeks-long adjustment period, during which patients have the option to adjust the sound levels. Patients receive hearing aids that have telecoils in them, which enables the hearing aid to directly connect to assistive listening systems in places such as The Loft Cinema in Tucson. They receive guidance on how to do this.

“Part of the reason universities are involved is to ensure the hearing aids are safe and programmed appropriately,” Wheeler said. While the contract is for one year, Wheeler and the department are working to secure long-term funding for the project.

Beyond clinical appointments, the Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences offers other helpful resources, including classes to learn about your own hearing loss and strategies for communication, funded by the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and the Hard of Hearing. Classes focus on the person with hearing loss and their partner or person they communicate with the most often, as well as on how to overcome communication breakdowns.

“The most fulfilling part of work at the clinic is helping individuals communicate better with those around them,” Wheeler said. “We also get to help educate future audiologists. Work at the clinic can be a win-win as we help students learn while also helping our community.”

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