Hearing loss is a common and often overlooked health problem that can severely affect quality of life. One in three people age 65 and older has hearing loss, according to the National Institute of Health. About 20% of all adults nationwide, or 48 million people, have some sort of hearing loss, and 60% of people with hearing loss are in the workforce.

Why do so many older Americans neglect to treat their hearing? For some the cost is overwhelming — hearing aids can cost up to $3,500 apiece, and most insurance doesn’t pay for them, neither does Medicare. Others simply do not realize how large of a problem their hearing loss is because it declines gradually.

Thomas Powers, M.D., is on a mission to improve the quality of life for his patients with hearing loss.

“In the past, I had no way to test for hearing loss and no way to treat it.”

Dr. Powers is a solo primary care physician serving the Lake Havasu region in Arizona — high desert country with a population of just 52,000 people. In spring 2013, he began offering free automated hearing tests to his patients — screening nearly all who are over age 40 — and providing affordable hearing aids to those who qualify.

In the first six months of hearing testing, Powers conducted hearing tests on more than 750 patients, and of those, 107 patients had confirmed hearing loss. Trust and access are clear motivators for patients. Some 61% of Powers’ patients said they probably or definitely would not have had a hearing test if they were referred elsewhere.

“The bottom line for me is getting my patients comprehensive care,” Dr. Powers says. “In the past, I had no way to test for hearing loss and no way to treat it.”

Powers’ approach to hearing testing was rather unique in that he made the initial screen part of general intake for all patients over age 40. A nurse takes all the patient vitals, including weight, temperature and blood pressure. In addition, the nurse holds a small device provided by GOhear up to the patients’ ears and asks patients to let her know when they hear the tone. The hearing screening, which registers four frequencies, takes about 45 seconds.

Using Tact to Talk to Patients About Hearing Loss

When Dr. Powers consults with his patients, he brings up any missed frequencies reported by the nurse. “I ask them, ‘Do you perceive a hearing problem?’” he says. Then he tells the patients they are eligible for a free automated hearing test that takes about seven to 10 minutes in his office. Most patients agree to come back another day for the hearing test.

Powers fits patients with hearing aids by GOhear, which cost $1,500 a pair. About 80% of patients who screen positive for hearing loss can use these hearing aids, while 20% need a fully customized solution.

The low cost is what sold Powers on the GOhear system, which is distributed by McKesson. His initial investment was only $5,000 in the system.

A lower-cost option is important for Dr. Powers’ patient population. Of the patients who purchased hearing aids from Powers in the first six months, 79% were new to the devices, and 86% said they would not have been able to afford more expensive hearing aids or would have delayed getting them elsewhere because of the cost. In Mojave County, Ariz., where Lake Havasu is located, the median annual income is $36,499.

Dr. Powers says he sees many different types of hearing loss in his practice. One patient who works in the oil fields of North Dakota had significant hearing loss as a result of his job. With a quick test and fitting, that patient’s hearing was restored within an hour. It’s not uncommon for Dr. Powers to see patients with untreated hearing loss as a result of service in the Vietnam War, he adds.

“There’s a lot of people out there needing hearing aids,” he says.

A perk of conducting hearing loss tests and fitting patients with hearing aids is that Powers gets to see first-hand patients’ reaction to being able to hear well, often for the first time in years.

“It’s like Christmas morning when you put hearing aids into these patients,” he beams.