Providers may be missing a major factor in hospital readmissions: Hearing loss.

Elderly individuals who are hospitalized often face difficulty in communicating due to hearing impairment, New York University experts said in a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Those who had difficulty communicating with health professionals had a 32% increased likelihood of being readmitted within the next 30 days.

That means residents who are discharged to a nursing home who have auditory impairment are at a greater risk for ending up back in the hospital. Providers must pay keen attention to hearing problems within their resident population, said Jan Blustein, a professor with NYU’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, who also published another study last year on hearing loss among SNF residents.

“Nursing homes tend to be unaware that people have hearing loss,” Blustein told McKnight’s. “It’s not really on their radar screen, oddly, and one of the problems is that there’s often an assumption that someone who doesn’t answer questions appropriately may have cognitive issues or be depressed, rather than pure hearing loss. I think there is some confusion on the part of staff at nursing homes as to whether this is a problem of hearing loss or whether it’s just the usual glum effect of someone who is in a nursing home.”

Blustein noted that there are several commonsense, low-cost approaches that nursing homes can take to address this issue. Those include everything from conducting a hearing screening at intake, checking for earwax, using a whiteboard to communicate, shutting off the TV to eliminate background noise, and communicating face to face. She hopes to conduct further research to test out the use of devices to communication between providers and the elderly.

“It’s remarkable how many individuals who deal with older people don’t pay attention to hearing loss,” she said. “Generally, they need to just be aware of it and use very simple protocols to speak with people who have hearing loss.”  

The new NYU study involved more than 4,400 participants age 65 and older and living in the community. All were hospitalized at least once between 2010 and 2013, and about 12% said hearing made it harder for them to communicate with providers.