Let me start with this: Hearing and balance evaluation and management are ALWAYS essential. Period. Are hearing or balance problems or disorders life threatening? No. Are the services we provide life sustaining? I think that answer lies in the needs and perception of the patient. For some individuals, they cannot communicate, work, stand, walk, or function within meaningful society WITHOUT us and the care we provide so, to them, we ARE life sustaining.
COVID has presented audiology practices with difficult decisions regarding their ability to provide access and services to their patients. Rather than making decisions for themselves, in their city and state and given their unique situation (age and type of patient population, staffing needs and limitations, services offered, telehealth capacities, and availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) and infection control supplies), some depended on professional associations and leadership to guide their path. This is how we ended up with statements like “audiology practices are “non-essential” in terms of the life-sustaining definition”. Never would I ever have made a statement like this publicly. Statements like this could have far reaching and long lasting effects on audiology and its advocacy initiatives. It also could, potentially, lessen our value in the eyes of those we serve.
Instead, I would have said how important hearing and balance care are to communication, mobility and quality of life and that each audiologist and audiology practice will consult with their state and local authorities to be able to provide access to as much audiologic and vestibular care as is safely possible, weighing the risks to patients, staff and their community. I would have acknowledged that I know how tough this can be for patients who depend on our care and encouraged them to reach out to their audiologist for guidance on what can be done during this emergency. We want to be available to our patients even if we are closed. We cannot abandon them! There is a great deal that can be accomplished for many patients with a phone call, video interaction, email, or taped tutorial. Continued support illustrates our value.
Audiologists need to defer to public health officials and government leaders in their cities, counties and states for decisions on whether or and how our businesses can and should remain available to our patients. They know the conditions on the ground better than anyone. We do not want our states and localities label us “non-essential”, especially when we are, simultaneously, lobbying Congress to consider our role and value to patients and their quality of life. I would rather be considered “essential” and make a personal decision on closure than be deemed “non-essential” and be forced to close. When every audiology practice in a community is closed, needy patients and consumers will turn to other provider types or delivery channels for care because closure does not mean the needs of the individual are not present; it means that their options to meet those needs are limited or different.
Audiologists need to make these tough decisions ourselves based upon our own practice and personal situations. Every practice does not have to remain open or allow for face to face interactions but some may want the opportunity to reconfigure their staff and their care delivery model to provide as much care as possible to their community. I know many audiologists who acted creatively to continue to provide access to evaluation and treatment services throughout the pandemic. These individuals jumped headfirst into telehealth and teleaudiology (including tinnitus and vestibular management), found ways to continue to provide hearing testing in new and creative ways using emerging technologies (like Shoebox and Kuduwave)and sheer ingenuity (think extension cords), and continued to be accessible to their patients through curbside and concierge care.
This pandemic is showing no signs of ending anytime soon. We are all going to continue to be faced with extremely tough decisions that affect every facet of our businesses and our profession. I just do not want any of us to relinquish our value to patients and their lives or consider ourselves “non-essential” to communication or mobility. When we continue down this path, we allow someone else to step into the void we relinquished. Audiology is essential and does matter! Never would I ever forget that!