Individuals looking for hearing loss treatment face a number of challenges, including medical terms that may be unfamiliar and categories of health care 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.
Audiologists and Doctors of Audiology
An audiologist is a person who has a masters or doctoral degree in audiology. Audiology is the science of hearing. In addition, the audiologist must be licensed or registered by their state (in 47 states) to practice audiology.
In the field of audiology, the master’s degree has been the accepted ‘clinical’ degree for almost 50 years. However, the profession is undergoing a transition to a doctorate level degree as the entry-level requirement to practice audiology. The Au.D. (Doctor of Audiology) is the clinical doctorate degree and is issued exclusively by regionally accredited universities and colleges. There are other doctoral degrees that have been earned and utilized by audiologists to date, such as the Ph.D. (still highly sought today by researchers and academicians), the Sc.D. and the Ed.D.
Audiologists work in a variety of settings including hospitals, schools, clinics, universities, rehabilitation facilities, cochlear implant centers, speech and hearing centers, private audiology practices, hearing aid dispensing offices, hearing aid manufacturing facilities, medical centers, as well as otolaryngology (ENT physician) offices. Although the vast majority of hearing problems do not require medical or surgical intervention, audiologists are clinically and academically trained to determine those that do need medical referral. As a licensed healthcare provider, the audiologist appropriately refers patients to physicians when the history, the physical presentation, or the results of the audiometric evaluation (AE) indicate the possibility of a medical or surgical problem. Many audiologists also dispense (sell and service) hearing aids and related assistive listening devices for the telephone, TV and special listening situations.
Hearing Instrument Specialists
Hearing instrument specialists (or, in some states, licensed hearing aid dispensers) are health care professionals who specialize in recommending and fitting appropriate hearing aid technology. Hearing instrument specialists are typically up to date on the latest technology available in the field — including assistive listening devices (amplified telephones, alarm systems, etc.) — and are experienced in performing and evaluating basic hearing tests.
Hearing instrument specialists must be either board-certified or licensed by the state. Most states also require an apprenticeship or a specified period of practical experience before they are licensed.
Otolaryngologists are physicians (M.D.s or doctors of medicine) who specialize in diagnosing and treating diseases of the ears, nose, mouth, and throat. As opposed to an audiologist, who is more like a “hearing doctor,” you can think of an otolaryngologist as an “ear doctor.” Trained in both medicine and surgery, otolaryngologists typically treat the types of profound hearing loss that require pharmaceutical or surgical treatment, like a cochlear implant. These types of hearing loss include loss caused by trauma, infection, or benign tumors in the ear.
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.
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.