TWENTYNINE PALMS, California (NNS) -- Audiologists are used to being separated from their patients. Usually, they sit at a control console and send the patient into a booth where a series of tones are administered to assess hearing. So, it shouldn’t matter if the booth is 133 miles away, as long as there is a skilled technician on site to assist. That’s the situation at Naval Hospital Twentynine Palms (Navy Readiness and Training Command Twentynine Palms), the pilot site for Navy Medicine’s teleaudiology program.
Naval Hospital Twentynine Palms, located in the California Mojave Desert, is considered a remote location. Its two branch healthcare clinics, in Ridgecrest, California and Bridgeport, California, are even more remote.
The teleaudiology program allows patients on the Hearing Conservation Program to be seen in a timely manner and avoids the cost of either the provider or patient traveling on temporary-duty assignment (TAD) orders, representing a significant savings in time and money.
Navy lieutenant Kathryn Buchanan, audiology department head, noted that before the inception of teleaudiology, it was difficult to provide access to care within the 28-day prescribed window. Providers only traveled to the branch clinics on a quarterly basis. Hearing-conservation program members can now forego the all-day trip, 133 miles one-way trip through the Mojave Desert and instead stop by the on-site teleaudiology booth for a 30-minute appointment.
“It’s all been extremely positive,” Lt. Buchanan said. “Everyone really likes that they don’t have to travel TAD to come here to get a hearing test. Patients really liking that access to care. They can be seen quickly and can then go about the rest of their day. It’s cutting out a lot of time away from work, not only for providers but also for our patients as well.”
According to an article published by the DoD Hearing Center of Excellence in 2018, “Veterans Benefits Administration reported there were 1.6 million and 1.1 million veterans receiving disability compensation in Fiscal Year 2016 for tinnitus and hearing loss, respectively.”
In an article in Noise and Health published by the National Institutes of Health, in 2015 nearly 500,000 U.S. veterans were receiving over $1 billion annually in Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) compensation for hearing loss.
“Yes, hearing loss is costing the Department of Defense billions of dollars,” Lt. Buchanan said. “Tinnitus and hearing loss are the top two most costly disabilities for the VA and DoD.”
Lt. Buchanan continued: “If you’re enrolled in the hearing conservation program, you are receiving a lot more education.” Department of Defense employees (military and civilian) who work in a noise-hazardous environment are placed in the Hearing Conservation Program.
“This benefits everyone who is enrolled,” Lt. Buchanan said. “I’ve received a lot of positive feedback from individuals who I see on an annual basis. Once they learn how to effectively use hearing protection, the next year when you see them, they’re like, oh yeah, I remember how to do that correctly. Unfortunately hearing loss that occurs due to noise exposure is permanent. But I always say that the good news is, it’s preventable.”
Naval Hospital Twentynine Palms currently has a teleaudiology booth in its Branch Health Clinic China Lake in Ridgecrest, California. An LVN nurse assigned to China Lake assists with the hearing tests. A teleaudiology booth is in the process of being installed at Branch Health Clinic Bridgeport, in Bridgeport, California. Once in comes online in the next few months, service members requiring a hearing test will be able to forego the 400-mile, eight-hour drive and instead get the 30-minute test at their own duty station.
For more news from Naval Hospital Twentynine Palms, visit www.navy.mil/local/nh29p/.