Two terms that are tossed around in the hearing community are audiologist and hearing aid specialist. Often, people are very confused about the differences in these professions. Many wonder what exactly what merits the distinction between “audiologist” and “hearing aid specialist or dispenser”. Certainly, the confusion is surrounding the fact that both professions provide hearing aids to people with hearing difficulties. However, the reality is that there are several differences that should be addressed to really understand these two different profession’s role in treatment of hearing loss, and education definitely plays a huge factor.
The Hearing Aid Specialist/Hearing Aid Dealer
First, it is important to realize that the biggest difference between the hearing aid specialist or dispenser is education. Many companies will dress up their specialists in a white coat to make them appear more like doctors. They call them “specialists” because many people associate that word with “expert,” but in fact this is a marketing ploy. Hearing aid specialists do not have the formal education that is associated anywhere near what the stringent requirements of an audiologist. It varies state by state, but usually it’s a high school education and passing a 60 question multiple choice test that they may take over and over until they pass.
Are they good people and try their hardest to do a good job with their limited knowledge? Probably. Can they care about their patients? Absolutely. If they look into your ear, will they recognize ear fungus or an ear issue that needs addressed by a physician? Probably not. You should keep in mind dispensers or hearing aid specialists are not well versed in ear diseases, and look at hearing problems as “sales” rather than auditory rehabilitation. They are trained on sales, marketing, and basic software programming. Hearing aid dealers have a very basic understanding of human anatomy, and often they are limited in their abilities of tying together the concepts of hearing loss and its impact on brain processing and understanding. Understanding speech takes place in the brain, not just the ears (think about how much work your brain has to do to filter out background noise) and so often hearing aid dealers are very limited in understanding the complexities of hearing loss- especially its impact on the patients employment, family, and social life altogether. You will find most hearing aid dispensers working for hearing aid stores (not medical clinics or hospitals) which are targeting sales. These stores want quantity of people and volume. They very rarely focus on the rehabilitation component of hearing loss, they rarely take the time to educate or discuss research, and have very limited knowledge on the compounding effects of hearing loss in your life with other medical issues.
Think of hearing aid specialists as an apprentice or an assistant to perform certain tasks associated with selling a product, explaining basic concepts like putting them on the ears, and fitting. Most hearing aid specialists will use a pre-designed fitting program, and may not make the best decisions with more challenging adjustments. There are hearing aid specialists that are fantastic because they have been in the field for many years, and they understand hearing aid software. But, since they do not have formal training in auditory processing issues, aging related issues, communication, neurology, etc., there will always be a gap in the critical thinking and deep knowledge of the field, that is now changed to a doctorate level degree with good reason.
The audiologist is also considered as a “hearing doctor,” which is a more rehabilitation-based doctorate. This is the highest possible degree in the field for hearing healthcare. The profession used to be a master’s level degree, until more demanding classes-such as brain anatomy and physiology or implantable devices, which required more time as a doctorate.. Audiologists are held to a very strict code of conduct on ethics and conduct. Their doctorate includes over 1800 hours of clinical work, a minimum of four years in doctorate level classes, and many audiologists have 8-10 years of university level coursework.
Some audiologists have Ph.D.’s which are research-based, and some audiologists have Au.D.’s (Doctor of Audiology Degree) which are clinical-based doctorates (which still involves a good amount of research). They are qualified to do much more than hearing aids, they can program implantable devices, balance testing and perform different diagnostic testing for hearing, tinnitus, balance, and assess sound sensitivities. They go through intense formal training programs that prepare them to treat patients with different hearing situations, and they are considerate of many different factors in the patient’s life. An audiologist should not be confused with a medical doctor-ENT. An ear nose throat (ENT) physician assesses medical problems with the ear and surgical solutions, and audiologist assesses hearing and rehabilitation
Audiologist test and assess proper treatment for a wide range of hearing problems. Some audiologists also hold a clinical certificate of competence (CCC-A) which is through their national organization which allows the ability to teach. Once they receive their training, they must pass a state dispensing exam to work in the occupation of audiology. Some states require an additional dispensing license for hearing aids that is not covered under their title.
Who Should You See?
This is another question that pops up all the time. Who should you see?
Hearing aids don’t treat the hearing loss, the provider treats the hearing loss and uses the hearing aid as one of their tools! They also have other tools as well, counseling, different fitting strategies, verification measurements, etc. The most qualified person for the job is the one who will sit down and spend time talking to you, and figure out where your problem areas are with hearing loss so they can tackle and improve those specific issues. If a family member is talking to a hearing impaired person from another room or with the television on, that is not a hearing aid solution but actually a counseling solution to implement better communication strategies. That’s where a professional would be able to problem-solve based on the patient’s real-life needs. So you should choose a provider you are comfortable working with and confident in their skill-set.
If you want someone to sell you a product, it really doesn’t matter where you go. That’s not the best solution to a hearing loss.
There are great dispensers and great audiologists. It’s easy to assume that a doctorate level education will make the audiologist the most qualified to handle hearing loss. There are audiologists in different settings-private clinics, ENT offices, hospitals. But in addition to education, quality of healthcare services should play a huge roll as well. It is optimal to go to a medical-based clinic, which will also have an ENT physician on site to provide an extra level of care to look at your overall ear health, as well as your hearing status. Therefore, the most successful hearing aid users, have pursued hearing healthcare from medical facilities, like an ENT clinic, that implement counseling and auditory rehabilitation in addition to their hearing aid fittings. The best professional, will be the person to walk you through and educate you in this process- so that hearing aids will help your life, they fit comfortably, and you are satisfied with wearing them every day.