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Navigating COVID-19 with Hearing Loss

An expert offers tips for technology and every day advice that might help people with hearing loss when having to distance for COVID-19. Watch a webinar above with Dr. Kevin Franck and Dr. Felipe Santos for more information.

The COVID-19 pandemic is presenting challenges across the country for all individuals. For people with hearing loss, these challenges can be exacerbated given ones they already have to navigate daily.

There are 48 million people in the United States who have hearing loss, with rates increasing with the aging and expanding population. Thirty-three percent of Americans between ages 65-74 and nearly 50 percent of those 75+ have hearing loss, according to the Hearing Health Foundation.

Working in conjunction with a leadership council made up of local hearing loss advocates and business leaders, the Division of Audiology at Mass. Eye and Ear is working to highlight ways in which people with hearing loss can stay socially connected during the pandemic. Here are some tips from Kevin H. Franck, PhD, director of Audiology at Mass. Eye and Ear.

Hearing loss can be isolating; technology may help

Today, most of the country is under stay-at-home orders to reduce the spread of COVID-19. For a person who is deaf or hard of hearing, staying away from others during the coronavirus pandemic, layered on top of hearing loss, can compound the feeling of isolation, according to Dr. Franck.

“Not only do you have hearing loss, which can cause you to miss out on information, but you’re limiting physical contact, which is how people with hearing loss stay sane,” Dr. Franck told Focus. “The term ‘social distancing’ should be changed to ‘physical distancing’ because everyone, especially people with hearing loss, needs to be socially connected now more than ever.”

During this time, technology can be a great resource for staying in touch with loved ones, said Dr. Franck. There are several devices and apps, including speech-to-text, phone call-to-text, and others that amplify sound on a smartphone, tablet or computer, during video conferencing, for instance. Ear Machine and Sonic Cloud are two examples of apps that can be helpful if you have a hearing aid that is not working or if you need to schedule an appointment to be evaluated.

While these apps may not provide a permanent solution for hearing loss, they have the ability to improve immediate access to potentially vital information.

Tips for seeking medical care when hard of hearing

Today, throughout hospitals and outpatient clinics, things are moving so quickly in a heightened environment that communication can be difficult. For people who rely mostly on lip reading, this can present huge challenges.

“If you walk into any hospital today, you’re going to be met by someone with a face mask on,” Dr. Franck pointed out.

He recommends people with hearing loss carry a COVID-19 card when visiting a hospital or clinic. Developed by the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing for health care workers and the public, this card uses icons to help communicate with medical staff. It displays the preferred method of communication (such as apps or an interpreter), symptoms, severity, in addition to other care questions.

Throughout some hospitals, clear masks are increasing in use to help better serve people with hearing loss. At Mass. Eye and Ear, they have been used in operating rooms where patients have to remove their hearing device prior to surgery, and have expanded the supply of clear masks to assist people who rely on speech-reading. These masks do not meet the N95 standard, so may not be suitable for all situations.

Some hospitals, including Mass. Eye and Ear, can hand out an amplification device for extra help upon request.

Many hearing loss physicians are still seeing patients for emergency hearing issues, such as sudden hearing loss. A questionnaire called the Consumer Ear Disease Risk Assessment (CEDRA) might help serve as a guide to inform you if your ears should be checked by a physician. To help determine whether the issue is urgent, it is recommended that you call your doctor immediately.

What if you need help with your hearing device?

For people who rely on devices such cochlear implants or hearing aids, it might feel like an emergency when equipment is acting up and your clinic has reduced services. The Audiology Division at Mass. Eye and Ear is continuing to serve patients with the greatest hearing needs through emergency in-clinic appointments, drop-off and pick-up services, mail-in or drive-by services, and telemedicine consultations.

If you’ve been putting off getting a hearing aid, an appointment in a non-emergency situation may be harder to come by at your local clinic during this time. Dr. Franck then recommends amplification devices known as “hearables,” which are sold online. An audiologist can help provide support to patients using hearables during a telephone consultation. Apps may also deliver immediate assistance while a device is getting repaired.

“We urge anyone with hearing loss who has any questions to check in with an audiologist,” said Dr. Franck. “Our goal is to ensure they are doing all they can to stay connected during the pandemic.”

Other resources

Other resources to assist you during COVID-19 and beyond have been created and compiled by the Hearing Loss Association of America and the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

About Our Expert

Kevin Franck, PhD, MBA, CCC-A is the director of Audiology at Mass. Eye and Ear. 

Due to the global public health concerns surrounding COVID-19 (coronavirus), Mass. Eye and Ear Audiology is currently open for urgent appointments only. To learn more, call 617-573-3266.

If you are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, contact your primary health care provider. For your safety and the safety of others, please do not come to the emergency department unless you have been instructed to do so.

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