By Charles S. Watson, Ph.D.
All this month, Duracell is sponsoring the National Hearing Test (NHT), in honor of May as Better Hearing and Speech Month. John Slattery of “Mad Men” is a spokesperson for the campaign and stars in a new Duracell commercial to raise awareness about hearing loss and the benefits of hearing aids.
The test can be taken without charge for the rest of the month, by dialing 1-844-9-DURACELL (1-844-938-7223).
The NHT is a U.S. version of the telephone-administered tests first introduced in the Netherlands in 2004 and now in use in most European countries and Australia. It measures the signal-to-noise-ratio required to identify spoken three-digit sequences in noise. Its validity was established by comparisons with pure-tone average thresholds used in traditional audiograms.
The not-for-profit screening requires about four minutes for each ear and the results are given at the end of the test as “within normal limits,” “slightly below normal limits,” or “substantially below normal limits.” Callers that fall below "normal limits" are advised to see an audiologist or a physician specializing in hearing for a complete evaluation. All callers with concerns about their hearing are similarly advised.
The test, usually $5, was offered for free during Better Hearing and Speech Month in May 2014, when it was publicized in health/science articles in several newspapers, including the Washington Post, St. Louis Post Dispatch, and the Indianapolis Star, estimated to reach 2 to 5 percent of the American population.
The 2014 data shows how we may expect the test to work this year: Over 40,000 calls were made to the test, the majority of which (32,000) were complete tests of both ears. Among the completed tests, 81 percent failed the test in at least one ear; their average age was 62.4 years, suggesting that the target audience was reached.
Follow-up studies revealed that about 38 percent of those failing the test subsequently sought a full hearing evaluation, or planned to do so in the future. Of those advised to purchase hearing aids after the full-hearing evaluation, 28 percent said they had done so or intended to.
Recent studies of decision-making in relation to other health problems as well as hearing loss suggest that decision-making is a multistage process that may require many months or even years to lead to action.
So, while failing a screening test may not always lead to immediate self-referral and the purchase of hearing aids, it may significantly reduce the delay in so doing from the typical 8 to 10 years from hearing loss diagnosis to purchase of hearing aids to perhaps as few as 1 to 3 years.
The remarkable response to the NHT when it was offered as a simple, private transaction shows there to be a great many persons with hearing loss who would take a valid, convenient, and private screening test if one were available. We are hopeful that the current month’s well-publicized availability of such screening tests will effect a major change in the public’s understanding of hearing loss and actions to treat it.
Charles S. Watson, Ph.D., is a professor of speech and hearing sciences at Indiana University and co-founder of Communication Disorders Technology Inc., which developed the National Hearing Test in collaboration with Indiana University, and the VU University Medical Center of Amsterdam, with the support of grants from the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
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