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Higher Medical Bills for Those Who Don't Treat Hearing Loss

The cost of hearing loss treatment is far less than the cost of not treating

spinner image Higher Medical Bills for Those Who Don’t Treat Hearing Loss
Research shows untreated hearing loss could mean higher medical bills.

Two new studies point out the serious consequences of untreated hearing loss.

In one, researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina found that middle-aged adults with untreated hearing loss had substantially higher medical bills compared with those without hearing loss. A second study from Johns Hopkins University found that moderate to severe hearing loss in those age 70+ was associated with a 54 percent higher risk of death.

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The South Carolina study, published online April 7 in the journal JAMA Otolaryngology — Head & Neck Surgery, examined some 562,000 adults ages 55 to 64 drawn from a national health care claims database. They were matched in terms of age, employment, the presence of a variety of chronic health conditions and other factors. Most had private, low-deductible health insurance with at least 18 months of coverage.

The study found that over 18 months, those with diagnosed hearing loss had 33 percent higher health care costs than those without hearing loss. Those with untreated hearing loss spent $14,165, while those without hearing loss spent $10,629. The study did not suggest a cause-and-effect relationship between hearing loss and higher health costs, merely a statistical association.

The study also found that of the 280,882 study subjects with hearing loss, just 36,323, or 13 percent, had received hearing services. That's even lower than the federal estimate that only 20 percent of those who could benefit from a hearing aid actually use one.

The study's lead author, Annie N. Simpson, an assistant professor of Health Care Leadership and Management at the Medical University of South Carolina, emphasized that the important finding was that the patients in the study were middle-aged, not 50+. The study shows, she said in a statement, that the negative health-related effect of hearing loss "may manifest earlier than is generally recognized and may affect use of health care across the continuum of care."

The reason for the higher bills, said Simpson in an email to AARP, could be because hearing difficulties cause some patients to avoid seeking timely medical care due to the stress of "trying to communicate with medical providers." Putting off going to the doctor could lead to problems becoming worse, she said, resulting in "a sicker patient who needs more care."

In addition, communication barriers could also affect how well those with hearing problems followed directions for taking medication or recognized "symptoms that signal the need to seek care." The isolation that often results from hearing loss may "reduce necessary communications about health problems to health care providers and family members," she added.

Hearing loss expert Frank Lin, M.D., and colleagues at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found a 54 percent higher risk of death among those age 70+ with moderate to severe hearing loss in another study published in JAMA Otolaryngology — Head & Neck Surgery.

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Co-author Kevin Contrera, a medical student, said in a statement that the findings don't answer "the big question" — whether hearing aids and other therapies could offset this negative effect.

Both of these studies are wake-up calls about the health (and financial) consequences of untreated hearing loss.

People with hearing loss — as well as insurers, including Medicare, and the hearing industry — need to pay attention to the consequences of doing nothing about hearing problems. The cost of treatment is likely to be far less than the cost of the consequences of not treating.

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