There is nothing wrong with dispensing professionals who perform what might be considered “basic” hearing aid testing, referral, fitting, and follow-up—resulting in healthier satisfied clients who benefit from the technology and the consumer gets what they pay for. However, having said that, there are several specialty areas that warrant at least enough expertise to promptly and effectively guide and/or refer important patient subgroups to proper treatment pathways. These include, but are not restricted to, cerumen management, cochlear implants, and vestibular/balance problems.

Another important specialty area is tinnitus. The American Tinnitus Association (www.ata.org) reports that more than 50 million Americans experience tinnitus to some degree. Of these, about 12 million have severe enough tinnitus to seek medical attention. By comparison, there are about 31.5 million people in the United States with hearing loss, with some 7.4 million hearing aid users, according to MarkeTrak VII (July 2005 edition of HR).

The survey in this month’s HR by Sergei Kochkin, PhD, and Richard Tyler, PhD, contains great news that confirms what has already been shown in the literature: hearing aids are an effective solution for the large overlapping population of people who have both tinnitus and hearing loss. According to this recent survey of dispensing professionals, 60% of patients report some relief from their tinnitus when using hearing aids, and 22% actually report major relief. Extrapolating from HR statistics, that would mean that about 667,000 clients visiting dispensing offices each year have some tinnitus, and of those, about 400,000 experience some relief from the use of hearing aids, with nearly 150,000 receiving major relief—roughly equal to the entire population of Salem, Ore. Think of the media coverage if it were suddenly discovered that glasses were 22%-60% effective in reducing or curing color blindness.

The bad news is that, according to Kochkin and Tyler’s article, approximately 9 million people in the United States are not seeking any help for their tinnitus (and hearing loss) because they believe they cannot be helped. Further, an amazing 9% of patients visiting dispensing offices experience tinnitus so severe that it interferes with their ability to lead a normal life.

Hearing care professionals and the hearing industry are relied upon as “the problem solvers” for consumers’ hearing-related questions. That doesn’t mean that every office has to offer everything to everyone (eg, tinnitus relief services). However, every office should be positioned to offer quality advice and referral information for those patients with special hearing-related problems, including tinnitus.

Listen to the HR Science & Technology Thursday Podcast on this subject (available December 18) with Richard Tyler, PhD, and Sergei Kochkin, PhD.

Like many in the field, I’m guilty of not having done the same kind of extensive reading on tinnitus as I’ve done on hearing and amplification. However, I do have this dubious badge of honor: I’ve been verbally battered by some of the preeminent tinnitus researchers in the world after running articles on the subject. And, disturbingly enough, I’ve enjoyed all of these verbal lashings and learned quite a bit from them. Since many of the researchers’ objections are actually with the viewpoints of other scientists in the field, I’ve come to the inevitable conclusion that—besides the fact that HR enjoys an engaged readership of hearing scientists—there are many disparate ideas about tinnitus and its treatment. That means that we need continued pressure on NIH and other funding sources for more research on tinnitus, as well as hearing loss. It also means that, more than ever, we need to keep up-to-date on tinnitus treatments and adhere to evidence-based practices.

Happy Holidays! The staff of The Hearing Review wishes you the very best of the holiday season, and we thank all of our readers, online visitors, contributors, and advertisers for their continued readership, input, and support.

Karl Strom
Editor-In-Chief