I recently interviewed my brother, Kurt Ashworth, who is an Audiologist in Ballarat, Australia. Here are his answers to some of the main questions I asked him:
1. What does an audiologist do?
Audiologists are communication experts. We specialise in testing and diagnosing hearing loss and can also specialise in testing balance function. Audiologists can help people of all ages experiencing hearing loss testing and diagnosing the type and degree of hearing loss and prescribing and programming hearing devices if appropriate, providing hearing rehabilitation and communication strategies and utilising other assistive technologies to improve their ability to hear and more effectively communicate.
2. What led to your interest in Audiology?
After an undergraduate degree in science with a major in psychology, that pathway did not interest me to pursue further, I stumbled across audiology and it seemed like a good mix of informational counselling and the utilisation of technology to improve peoples communication. The hearing devices and cochlear implants keep improving their capabilities to the point where they can now also work as Bluetooth headphones, an ai assistant in your ears and a fitness tracking device as well as improving the patients hearing.
3. How can Audiology help to improve someone’s quality of life?
As discussed, a lot of our patients can have long-standing hearing issues that have not been diagnosed or corrected. Hearing devices, assistive listening devices and cochlear implants and sometimes surgery to correct the hearing problem can give back peoples ability to communicate more effectively with their loved ones and when out socially which is very impactful on peoples quality of life. We also know there are links to higher risk of dementia, falls and loneliness with untreated hearing loss so the opposite exists if the hearing issue can addressed with hearing devices or surgery.
4. What are some of the most rewarding parts of the job?
I really enjoy the journey of seeing a patient through from start to finish, diagnosing the problem, coming up with a treatment plan with their individual goals and difficulties in mind. Then seeing how the technology has improved their hearing and they can then start to reintroduce things in their life they had previously cut out due to their hearing.
5. Do you have to do much counseling as part of working as an Audiologist?
I would say the most important part and the majority of my job is counselling and teaching. The technology is great but you can have the worlds best hearing aids but without buy in from the patient, they sit in the draw. We need to counsel about what to expect, how to manage the devices and help to get optimal outcomes. Majority of our adult patients have inner ear loss/damage so we’re also counselling about residual hearing issues even with technology due to the damage In their hearing pathways. The hearing devices can only do so much.
6. At what age does hearing loss usually begin?
At any age, all babies in Victoria are now testing in hospital after birth before they are discharged. If they do not pass their newborn hearing screen, they are seen by a diagnostic audiologist for electrophysiological testing while the baby is asleep and can diagnose with good accuracy the level of hearing loss in each ear and refer this baby on to Hearing Australia for aiding by 4 weeks of age and if cochlear implants are needed, can be implanted around 6 months of age. A lot of children have hearing issues in childhood due to middle ear blockages that can impact on speech and language development. Some adults experience progressive hearing loss or noise induced hearing loss, majority of adults in their latter years, 65+ experience differing degrees of age related hearing loss.
7. What difference can a good pair of hearing aids make?
The majority of the hearing aids available from the top manufacturers now have directional microphones to help people hear better from in front, noise reduction to help make hearing in background noise more comfortable.
The most important function of a hearing aid is the ability to make speech louder so the sounds in speech are audible for the user without loud sounds being too loud and uncomfortable.
The skill of the audiologist in optimising the hearing and providing appropriate counselling and guidance is often just as important as the technology in the device. If someone is not getting on well with their hearing aids, get them readjusted and if you’re still struggling it maybe worth a second opinion and adjustment before considering purchasing new technology again.
If you are quoted a lot of money for hearing aids, ring around for other quotes, base level hearing aids retail for about $1000 for 1 device up to about $4000 for top of the range with plenty of options in between.
9. What is Tinnitus and what causes it?
Tinnitus is a head noise that the patient can hear that is not present in the environment. It can be present all the time or intermittently, it can be in just one ear or both.
The exact mechanism of tinnitus is still up for debate but tinnitus often indicates a problem in the hearing pathway and can be seen more as a symptom of something else rather than the cause. Tinnitus can be brought on due to wax occlusion, middle ear dysfunction and or inner ear (cochlear) hearing loss.
10. Can anything help Tinnitus if someone has it?
The first thing needed is a hearing test, that way we can clear out wax if needed, test where the issue is and refer on to an ear nose and throat specialist if required. If all medical concerns have been ruled out, both amplification and or sound enrichment can assist with tinnitus. Referral to a psychologist for CBT can also be helpful in the more severe cases. Good news is most peoples tinnitus is loudest and most bothersome initially and often improves and reduces in intensity and concern overtime even if it doesn’t go away completely.
11. Have you heard of Misophonia/ hyperacousis and does anyone know what causes it?
Misophonia is reasonably rare, I have only come across it a couple times in my career. It’s a hatred of sounds and can be something as common as the sound of their partners chewing or a clock ticking, even when these sounds are not loud. It’s more about the emotional response to these sounds rather than pain but can be very debilitating in extreme cases. Sometimes people will wear earplugs to reduce the outside sounds but not enough to completely block off their hearing.
Hyperacousis is more common and is a physical discomfort to loud sounds and often goes hand in hand with more severe losses and often losses due to noise damage. Hearing aids can be programmed to improve the usable hearing but reduce the intensity of these loud sounds to more comfortable levels.
12. Can Audiologists help with Misophonia?
Yes, A clinic in Heidelberg – DWM specialises in treating hyperacousis and misophonia and we refer on for the more severe cases.
13. What if someone sleeps next to a partner who snores? Can Audiologists help at all?
Yes, we do a number of custom made earplugs that can help for reducing the volume of snoring, work related noise and music etc.
14. What are your hopes for the field of Audiology in the future?
My hope would be more accessible services and devices for all, while cochlear implants can be provided through a combination of state and federal funding free of charge in Victoria, patients between 26 and 65 really have very little support financially in the purchase of hearing aids from the governments. This leads to alot of patients without the means to access good devices which can lead to untreated hearing issues.
On a more positive note, we a seeing a lot of convergence in audiology, where hearing devices are now doing much more than just improving hearing. Some brands have heart rate monitors in their aids, can detect falls and notify significant others if this occurs and the patients current location. Others brands are tracking steps and levels of social engagement, they can even translate from one language to another in real time in the ear which feels very James Bond. My hope is with all these technological advances, hearing devices and the associated stigma is reducing so people are more willing to do something about their hearing earlier.
15. Is someone is concerned about their hearing at all, what can they do?
Find a local independent audiologist and get a hearing test. Even if the test is only to provide for baseline hearing levels, this allows for tracking of any deterioration going forward.
16. Where do you work, and how do people get in touch?
I work at an independent clinic in Ballarat, Ballarat Hearing Clinic. We provide hearing testing from birth to 16 on behalf of the Ballarat base hospital through their outpatients services. We also see adults for hearing testing, aid fitting and adjustment and cochlear implant assessment and programming. You can find us most easily by searching Ballarat hearing clinic on google and clicking on our website for contact details. You don’t need a medical referral to see an audiologist.
For anyone who would like to hear the whole interview, please check out the following: https://spotifyanchor-web.app.link/e/cfmd7D45Wtb
Dr Damon Ashworth