What if you could accurately test your own hearing in your own living room at no cost and in complete confidentiality. Would you do it?
That opportunity exists. The National Hearing Test is a telephone test developed by researchers at Communications Disorders Technology and the University of Indiana, based on an existing Dutch model. The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the test came on the market in the United States in 2014. So far 40,000 Americans have taken the test, which ordinarily costs $5.
Beginning this month, AARP is offering more than 16,000 free tests to members. The screening can help people determine if they need a complete hearing evaluation. It has no financial connection with any hearing products or services.
The test takes five minutes per ear, and the results are given at the end. There are three categories of result: “within normal limits,” “slightly below normal limits” and “substantially below normal limits.” If the results are outside the normal limits in either ear, the caller is advised to see a hearing professional of their choice.
During a one-month promotional period last year, nearly 31,000 people took the test at no charge. Most apparently already suspected they had hearing loss because the results showed that 81 percent had some hearing loss.
Did this result in immediate trips to an audiologist? No. Followup studies found that only 5 to 10 % of those with abnormal results purchased hearing aids in the following year. (This is still about double the number expected to have gotten hearing aids without the tests.)
“So why take the test if most callers were aware that they had a hearing problem?” asked Charles Watson, professor of speech and hearing sciences at Indiana University and coauthor of a paper on the test to be published in Audiology Today, the journal of the American Academy of Audiology. The value, the authors wrote, is the affirmation that the suspected hearing loss is real. Many studies have shown that taking a hearing test and failing it is only the first step in a long multi-stage process leading to the purchase and successful use of of hearing aids.
What about those for whom even $5 is a burden. Dr. Watson, one of the creators of the test, suggests that there might be a small surcharge on certain services to enable the test to be offered free to all. This is the procedure used to support captioned telephones, which are free to those with documented hearing loss. The cost is underwritten by a surcharge on all phone bills.
If your test results are below normal, there are two good reasons to follow the test’s suggestion that you see a hearing professional. The first is that the problem may be something simple like excess or impacted earwax, which a doctor can quickly resolve. No need for hearing aids. The second is that an audiologist may see danger signs of an underlying medical condition, which hearing aids will do nothing to correct.
The educated consumer can recognize the red flags, as I wrote last week – the same red flags your audiologist is looking for.
Asymmetrical hearing loss – hearing loss that is more severe in one ear than the other, or with a different pattern.
Sudden hearing loss. If you wake up one morning and you can’t hear out of one ear, get to an ENT. Your primary care doctor may dismiss the problem as congestion but with certain kinds of sudden loss, immediate treatment by an ENT may reverse that loss. A delay of two weeks or more and you’re past the optimum window for successful treatment .
Hearing loss accompanied by other symptoms: vision problems or a headache, dizziness, tinnitus.
All of these are indications that you are not suffering from simple noise or age related hearing loss.
I can’t think of any reason not to take the test.