The hidden healthcare cost behind untreated hearing loss
Untreated hearing loss comes with a host of negative effects. From depression and deteriorating relationships with friends and family to reported lower quality of life, hearing loss casts a wide net. And now, a new study confirms those with hearing loss suffer yet another cost: higher medical bills.
The new study conducted at the Medical University of South Carolina looked at data from the Truven Health Market Scan Database, a national healthcare claims database, to see if there was a correlation between hearing loss and the use of healthcare. The results were surprising.
The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery, compared the costs of healthcare for a large group of 562,000 privately insured individuals between the ages of 55 and 64, both with and without hearing loss. In addition to being in the same age range, the subjects were similar in terms of employment and the presence of chronic health conditions. Type of insurance coverage was also similar; the subjects all had private, low-deductible health insurance.
Researchers examined healthcare data such as inpatient costs, outpatient costs, prescriptions and hearing care over an 18-month time period and discovered those with hearing loss had significantly higher medical bills than those without hearing loss. How much higher? Overall, those with hearing loss had medical bills that were 33 percent higher than those without hearing loss. Those without hearing loss spent $10,629 over 18 months, while those with hearing loss spent $14,165 over the same period of time.
One could surmise that the difference lies simply in the cost of treating hearing care alone, but that is not the case. Yes, the costs of healthcare were higher for those with treated hearing loss than for those without any hearing loss at all, but those who spent the most on healthcare were those with untreated hearing loss. Even taking into account adjustments to the data for those who received hearing treatment such as hearing aids, those being treated for hearing loss still paid significantly less for healthcare than those who had hearing loss but did not receive hearing treatment.
Study author Annie Simpson, assistant professor in the department of healthcare leadership and management at the Medical University of South Carolina, theorizes that hearing loss puts patients at a disadvantage when it comes to medical care, which could translate into higher medical costs in the long run. In an e-mail to AARP, she wrote that hearing difficulties could cause patients to avoid seeking medical care due to the “stress of trying to communicate with medical providers.” However, avoiding or delaying going to the doctor can cause problems to become worse, resulting in a much sicker patient who needs more (i.e. more expensive) care. Hearing loss can also cause a patient to have difficulty following medical providers' instructions for follow-up care or medications, leading to further health problems.
The South Carolina study is the first to "open the books" to look at the financial impact of hearing loss, but it is not the first to associate overall health with hearing loss. A study at Johns Hopkins found that for adults aged 70 and older, hearing loss was associated with a 54 percent increased risk of mortality.
"This finding indicates that negative health-related effects of hearing loss, a condition that many consider simply an unavoidable result of aging, may manifest earlier than is generally recognized and may affect use of healthcare across the continuum of care," said Simpson.
Researchers stress that further study is needed to understand the exact reasons behind the higher medical costs, and how early adoption of hearing aids and other treatment might impact costs in the long run. However, the results suggest that although hearing loss is costly, earlier intervention might help keep those costs down.
Ultimately, the consequences of untreated hearing loss from a financial, physical or emotional perspective are likely to be far worse than the cost of treating hearing loss. And researchers in this study took note of an important fact: the rate of hearing loss triples between the ages of 50 and 60. So even if you think you are too young to have hearing loss, see a hearing care professional for a screening if you are having any symptoms. You could not only lower your healthcare costs in the long term, you could have a longer, healthier and happier life.