During a recent PW podcast episode, we spoke with Susan D. Emmett, MD, MPH, associate professor of otolaryngology and director of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Center for Hearing Health Equity. The following includes highlights from that interview.

Can you describe the design of the trial, which was published in The Lancet Global Health Journal?

The trial looked at whether telemedicine specialty referral would improve time to follow-up for school-based hearing screening, compared with a standard primary care referral, in 15 communities in rural Alaska. Schools are often the only source of preventative services for rural children. After randomization, 750 kids in one arm received the telemedicine referral and 731 children received a primary care referral.

What were the primary results?

The results highlighted the power of telehealth to improve access to care for rural children. In this study, children identified as needing additional care were more than twice as likely to receive follow-up through the telehealth pathway, and follow-up happened more than 17 times faster.

Through interviews, we learned about community perceptions on the impact of hearing loss and gained contextual understanding of the trial findings, which is essential as we continue to scale this work.

What are the implications of your findings?

Advancements in technology that improve access to care are a paradigm shift that could change the landscape of health disparities in rural areas. Just imagine specialists located hundreds or thousands of miles away providing care in the most rural and remote communities.

The recent FDA approval of over-the-counter hearing aids is a great example of an advancement that can empower Americans with affordable, accessible hearing technology. While that approval is specifically only for adults, the concept of expanding beyond a traditional medical model is key for addressing a public health challenge of this scope and size. There are an estimated 1.6 billion people living with hearing loss globally. That’s one out of five people on the planet, and this number is expected to rise to one in four by 2050.