Amber Willink, Ph.D.

Nursing homes and other eldercare providers will need to bolster their offerings in audiology due to a recent federal law, an expert recommended this week.

The Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017 will soon allow seniors to purchase hearing aids without an audiologist serving as middleman. But there will be no guarantee that older adults will have access to the corresponding hearing care services needed to optimize the use of such devices, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health researchers noted in a Health Affairs study published Monday.

Those who are dually eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid have about 41% lower odds of using hearing care services, and were twice as likely to report having trouble hearing with their aids when compared to high-income Medicare beneficiaries. Those barriers are only likely to be exacerbated once obtaining hearing aids is separated from a healthcare encounter, the authors wrote.

The takeaway for nursing homes is to be ready for this care gap, and diversify their hearing care services, whether by adding an audiologist on staff or another hearing specialist, lead researcher Amber Willink, Ph.D., told McKnight’s. Without that help, hearing aids can sometimes end up in a drawer, rather than in one’s ears.

“My big message to leaders at nursing homes is that this is a very prevalent issue, even more so in their facilities, because of the older age of the population that tends to be there,” said Willink, an assistant scientist in both the Department of Health Policy and Management and Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health. “If people aren’t able to understand and communicate, then they’re less likely to adhere to their medications and follow instructions from doctors and staff.”

Johns Hopkins researchers reached their conclusions by examining 2013 data from the Medicare Current Beneficiary Survey, looking for existing barriers to hearing care. The Hearing Aid Act of 2017 requires the FDA to establish a regulatory framework and processes to allow for the over-the-counter sale of these devices by 2020.

Willink said they’re embarking on further studies to look specifically at use of hearing aids in the nursing home population.

“Are [beneficiaries] going to the hospital more often?” she asked. “Are they having some of these adverse events like falls? Or are they experiencing high rates of depression? These are things that we know to be true in the community-dwelling population, but considering that those in nursing homes are more likely to have hearing loss, do we see even higher rates there?”

Another recent study found that treating hearing loss might help to reduce depression for older adults.