The COVID-19 outbreak has jolted nearly every aspect of human life into the virtual sphere, including how we work, connect with social networks, and receive health care. Yet, this shift has been far from equitable; it is highly dependent on one's access and ability to utilize technology. As audiologists, we must be cognizant of these disparities since many of our patients need extra support in transitioning to the digital realm. While our patients’ ability to hear is likely at the forefront of our concerns, it would behoove us to also consider the value in using this time to improve our patients’ technology literacy. Perhaps the best service for our patients right now is to ensure they can communicate virtually with ease, for the sake of their livelihood, their health, and their mental well-being.
STEP 1: ENSURE ACCESS
With patient populations skewed towards the aging, access to now commonplace technology is certainly not a given. Older Americans, even more so for those who are low-income and non-white, display lower access to technology than the overall population1. While 96 percent of Americans reported currently owning a cell phone, only 53 percent of those over the age of 65 reported owning a smartphone, dropping to only 40 percent of those in the Silent Generation.2 Also, only 51 percent of seniors have access to high-speed internet.3 Although these numbers have promisingly increased over the past decade, the actual use of technology is far from ubiquitous.
STEP 2: ASSESS ABILITY
Access alone does not equate to proficiency. Adults between 65 and 69 years old are nearly two times as likely as those over 80 years old to use the internet. This may be due to a difference in perceived value, however, a difference in comfort level is more likely responsible. Slightly more than one-third of older internet users reported little to no confidence in their ability to use an electronic device to perform tasks. Furthermore, nearly half (48%) of seniors stated that if they were to get a new device, they would need someone else to set it up or show them how to use it.3 This confidence gap likely perpetuates the lack of proficiency. Without sufficient training and orientation, their use of electronic devices may remain low.
STEP 3: FACILITATE ACCESSIBILITY
Technology is now at the forefront of our daily lives. Zoom, a major videoconferencing platform, reported 200 million Zoom call participants per day in March, a 20-fold increase over their numbers from March 2019.4 And with it came the occasional frozen screen, garbled speech, microphone malfunction, and onslaught of background noise—all of which spelled trouble for patients with hearing loss. Among audiologists, this tech support has not always been embraced but remains a realistic aspect of our job. Prior to the explosion of telehealth and virtual socialization, audiologists were well equipped to assist in the pairing of hearing aids to cell phones, provide instructions on app use, and implement the use of supplemental technology and accessories.
Audiologists are also veterans in counseling on good communication strategies for people with hearing loss and their communication partners. Yet with a change in our communication patterns, patients now require new digital communication strategies. Rather than focusing on how to best position oneself at a cocktail party, patients must now know how to troubleshoot a Zoom call. Instead of reliance on lip-reading, patients should feel empowered to utilize captioning.
By embracing the current tech-driven realities of our patients, we are embracing person-centered care and meeting the demands of their new hearing needs. As hearing healthcare providers, we aim to ease the reception of communication and to maintain social engagement. The best way we can do that in the current climate is to ensure our patients have the access, the ability, and the accessibility to utilize technology to their best ability. These lessons will build trust with patients and provide them with transferable tools to facilitate human connection and communication far beyond the current pandemic.
1. Pew Research Center, “Fact Sheet Mobile” Pew Research Center,
12 Jun 2019 https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/mobile/
2. Vogels, E. “Millennials Stand Out For Their Technology Use, But Older Generations Also Embrace Digital Life”, Pew Research Center.
9 Sept 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/09/09/us-generations-technology-use/
3. Anderson, M. & Perrin, A., “Tech Adoption Climbs Among Older Adults”, Pew Research Center
, 17 May 2017, https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2017/05/17/tech-adoption-climbs-among-older-adults/