Individuals looking for hearing loss treatment face a number of challenges, including medical terms that may be unfamiliar and categories of healthcare professionals that may seem confusing. For instance, what is the difference between an audiologist and a hearing instrument specialist?
Ear Doctors, Audiologists, Hearing Aid Specialists — What’s the Difference?
The types of hearing care professionals you might encounter in seeking help with your hearing loss differ in both their education and their skills:
Otolaryngologists are physicians (M.D.s or Doctors of Medicine) who specialize in diagnosing and treating diseases of the ears, nose, mouth, and throat. Trained in both medicine and surgery, otolaryngologists typically treat hearing losses that require pharmaceutical or surgical treatment, like ear infections, injuries to the ear, deformities of the ear, or other medically treatable issues. Approximately 5% to 10% of adult hearing problems are treatable medically or with surgery. The other 90% to 95% require hearing aids for treatment. Otolaryngologists rely on Audiologists to perform the hearing evaluation from which they base their medical decisions.
After completing a medical course of treatment, otolaryngologists often refer patients to an Audiologist for the prescription and fitting of digital hearing aids or counseling to help redevelop communication and language recognition skills.
Audiologists and Doctors of Audiology
So what is an Audiologist? Audiologists are the primary healthcare professionals who evaluate, diagnose, and provide non-medical treatment and rehabilitation for hearing loss, tinnitus and balance disorders in adults and children. You can think of an Audiologist primarily as a “hearing doctor.” Audiologists are licensed and most have completed a Doctor of Audiology (Au.D.) degree, though there are other doctoral degrees within the field, such as a Ph.D. or Sc.D. Doctoral audiology degrees require 8 years of college and post-graduate education.
- Evaluate and diagnose hearing loss and vestibular (balance) disorders
- Prescribe, fit, and dispense hearing aids and other amplification and assistive listening technologies
- Are members of cochlear implant teams
- Perform ear or hearing-related surgical monitoring being completed by the otolaryngologist or neurotologist
- Design and implement hearing conservation programs
- Design and implement newborn hearing screening programs
- Provide hearing rehabilitation training such as auditory training and listening skills improvement
- Assess and treat individuals, especially children, with central auditory processing disorders
- Assess and treat individuals with tinnitus (noise in the ear, such as ringing)
Audiologists possess comprehensive knowledge of the human auditory and vestibular systems, which is critical to the accurate fitting and adjustment of hearing aids.
Hearing Instrument Specialists
Hearing instrument specialists, or licensed hearing aid dispensers, are professionals who specialize in recommending and fitting hearing aid technology. In Washington State, they are required to complete a two-year degree program in hearing instrument fitter/dispenser instruction and pass a written and practical exam. In some states, a high school diploma and passing an exam is the minimum requirement to become licensed.
Hearing Instrument Specialists:
- Perform basic hearing evaluations for the sole purpose of selling hearing aids. They are not qualified to perform diagnostic evaluations, are not allowed to charge for hearing tests, and their test results cannot be used outside their own offices.
- Sell and program hearing aids and assistive listening technology
- Typically work only with the adult population
Often Doctors of Audiology will hire and supervise hearing instrument specialists to perform the basic functions of fitting hearing aids.
No matter what type of specialist you decide to see for your hearing needs, the most important factor is the overall experience they provide, which should include a comprehensive approach to diagnosing, treating, and reevaluating your hearing. Partnering with a professional who listens to your needs is critical to the success of your treatment plan.