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The enormous impact of Australian hearing loss is hiding in plain sight

NextSense Chief Executive, Chris Rehn shares his insight on the impact of hidden hearing loss on Australian communities and what more we can do to improve outcomes.
CE Chris Rehn
  • Hearing

By NextSense Chief Executive, Chris Rehn.

When talking about our hearing becomes as routine as the (very important) conversations we have about our eyes, we’ll know we’re giving hearing loss the attention it deserves.

We’re a long way from that today.

This needs to change given the huge number of people affected and the link between untreated hearing loss and serious health consequences, like dementia, social isolation and deteriorating mental health.

One in every seven Australians experiences hearing loss – that’s 3.6 million people. The numbers are even more acute for those over 65 – one in every three are affected.

Despite this, two thirds of people go untreated. And only approximately 10% of adults who could be helped by cochlear implants currently access them.

Hearing loss affects more people than diabetes and asthma. And it’s growing. By 2060 these numbers are expected to double to 7.8 million people.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are disproportionately affected. Aboriginal children have among the highest rates of hearing loss in the developed world and are twice as likely to develop long-term hearing problems that stay with them into adulthood.

There’s also still considerable stigma and mystery around hearing loss, with low awareness about the treatment and options that exist, and the importance of early intervention – for both children and adults.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that two thirds of adult hearing loss is preventable. This year's World Hearing Day, held on 3 March, the WHO got the conversation started by calling for greater focus on teen exposure to environmental noise such as loud music.

So, what more can we do?

The launch of the first Australian Eye and Ear Health survey on Thursday 3 March 2022 is a piece of good news in our efforts to improve hearing and vision health.

It’s welcome that this federally funded university collaboration, involving the Westmead Institute for Medical Research and Macquarie University among others, has extended its remit to include hearing.

This will help us better understand prevalence, risk factors and impacts of hearing loss in adults. We need better information on how to deliver the right services at the right time and place.

Australia already has an international reputation, a raft of researchers doing cutting edge work, and cross collaborations such as the Australian Hearing Hub at Macquarie University. We’re a world leader in terms of the depth and quality of our data on childhood hearing loss.

But we need to leverage this momentum and join up the data we have. A national database that tracks outcomes for all Australians with hearing loss is a key part of the puzzle.

Australia’s Roadmap for Hearing Health, released in 2019, identified a national database and targeted public awareness campaigns as important areas of focus.

It’s important we stay the course. A national, proactive approach to hearing loss is one of the best investments Australia could make in healthy ageing. WHO data for our region shows the return on investment in addressing hearing loss is $23 for every dollar spent.

We need to make it easier for those with hearing loss to move seamlessly from GPs to audiologists to ENT specialists to expert allied health teams. Screening at the right milestones will help us and we have a world-class newborn hearing screening system to guide the way. Our approach should be grounded in evidence so it can deliver the results we need.

We must prioritise equity of access for those who face barriers to services, such as Australians living in regional and remote areas, whose populations are ageing rapidly and who will be at the coalface of age-related hearing loss.

Telehealth is an important part of the solution. A new Medicare item that takes effect this week to support remote programming of auditory devices is a welcome development.

Tackling hearing sector workforce shortages is just as critical in ensuring people get the services they need. These issues are acute and there’s no time to waste.

Australia has the smarts to do what’s needed to address the impacts of hearing loss. If we can stay focused on harnessing this collective intelligence, capitalise on goodwill and retain sense of urgency to match the growing scale of the problem we just might get there.

This article was originally featured by the Newcastle Herald. Read it on their site here.

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