There are only 13,000 audiologists in the United States, but nearly 50 million Americans with some degree of hearing loss, 60% of whom are of working age. It's projected that one billion young adults worldwide are at risk for permanent hearing loss due to unsafe listening habits. Meanwhile, over half of US counties do not have a single audiologist and even in major cities there's a large patient to population ratio that makes accessibility difficult.
This is causing a major accessibility problem, one that Tuned, a digital hearing health company, is solving by offering a hearing healthcare benefit to employers and organizations, allowing their employees to connect with an audiologist via teleheath.
"Tele-audiology bridges this gap by increasing the efficiency of care for both the provider and audiologist, reducing the cost of pursuing hearing healthcare, and opening up access to audiologists across the state rather than being tied to a specific geographic region," Danny Aronson, the company's CEO and co-founder, told VatorNews.
"States such as Alaska, North Carolina, and Kentucky have invested in the development of tele-audiology after witnessing disparities in hearing healthcare outcomes dependent on how long and far one must travel to access an audiologist."
Tuned's goal is for every employee in the U.S. to have hearing care as a standard benefit, just like dental and vision, and now it can start making that vision a reality thanks to a $3.5 million round of funding it announced on Monday led by Distributed Ventures with participation from Idealab NY, and Elements Health Ventures.
Users start on Tuned start with an online screening, which they then review with one of the company's 200 available audiologists. Patients receive education around hearing loss prevention through safe listening habits and earplug recommendations, and they can also get advice from the audiologist, who can address their situational hearing needs that may not be best served by traditional hearing aids; if the patient does need a hearing aid, it will delivered directly to their home.
"Tuned audiologists are uniquely prepared in discussing over the counter hearing aids, assistive listening devices, specialized headphones, software, and apps to create a robust and holistic hearing healthcare plan," said Aronson.
"Research also links hearing care intervention with improved mood, reduced depression and social anxiety, and improved quality of life. By giving streamlined access to audiologists, more patients can experience these positive outcomes."
Tuned is currently available to around 1.4 million users through its contracts with NFP, Coral Health, Nomi Health, UCP, The Grammy Foundation and Flume Health and the patient population that uses Tuned tends to be working age adults who have a wide range of perceived hearing difficulties, plus those who have tinnitus or an auditory processing disorder. As such, they also have a wide range of hearing related disorders and the onset of issues far earlier in life than many may expect.
The company also sees patients who present with very specific audiologic issues such as hearing loss that would be best served by assistive technology, tinnitus who would benefit from tinnitus therapy, or processing issues who would be good candidates for auditory training.
"Very often these patients have not engaged in hearing healthcare in at least 15 years, if ever, yet report high levels of motivation to improve some aspect of their hearing. Most commonly, they are interested in improving their hearing in some aspect at work, be it hearing at work dinners, better audio on video calls, or tips for clearer phone calls. Beyond the work space, many patients seek out how to practice safe listening habits and hearing loss prevention, both recreationally and at work," Arsonson said.
By offering hearing as a benefit, Tuned is able to reach patients much earlier than traditional hearing clinics can; in the current environment, patients wait on average seven to 10 years from when they first notice a hearing loss to when they actually pursues care with an audiologist, while children in rural areas are delayed 5 months for hearing aid fittings and up to 19 months for cochlear implantation when compared to their urban counterparts,
All of this may impact the patient's long term hearing performance due to advancement in hearing loss and the presence of auditory deprivation; without the proper education and counseling from an audiologist on proper hearing conservation and safe listening habits, there will likely be a significant increase in the prevalence of hearing loss, with Johns Hopkins University projecting the number to balloon to 73.5 million American adults by 2060."
"The delay of access to an audiologist will increase one’s likelihood of developing preventable yet permanent hearing loss due to unsafe listening habits, including the one billion young adults worldwide who have been found to be at risk," Aronson explained.
By opening these lines of communication to younger, working age people, he believes that its patients are more informed consumers of hearing healthcare, and more educated on the importance of hearing loss prevention.
In addition, by embracing tele-audiology, Tuned offers patients more accessible care and acts as a trusted resource for patients, who have never engaged in hearing healthcare previously, or who have been previously lost to follow up. The idea is to be make accessing that care more convenient.
"While Tuned has many potential avenues to pursue, the focus for 2023 is generating B2B revenue from the employee benefits space. We are building out that department. We are also building new and innovative offerings in hearing care around occupational health and pediatrics that will be announced in Q3," said Aronson.