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Safety of Audiology Direct Access for Medicare Patients Complaining of Impaired Hearing
06 August 2020 (online)
Background: Allowing Medicare beneficiaries to self-refer to audiologists for evaluation of hearing loss has been advocated as a cost-effective service delivery model. Resistance to audiology direct access is based, in part, on the concern that audiologists might miss significant otologic conditions.
Purpose: To evaluate the relative safety of audiology direct access by comparing the treatment plans of audiologists and otolaryngologists in a large group of Medicare-eligible patients seeking hearing evaluation.
Research Design: Retrospective chart review study comparing assessment and treatment plans developed by audiologists and otolaryngologists.
Study Sample: 1550 records comprising all Medicare eligible patients referred to the Audiology Section of the Mayo Clinic Florida in 2007 with a primary complaint of hearing impairment.
Data Collection and Analysis: Assessment and treatment plans were compiled from the electronic medical record and placed in a secured database. Records of patients seen jointly by audiology and otolaryngology practitioners (Group 1: 352 cases) were reviewed by four blinded reviewers, two otolaryngologists and two audiologists, who judged whether the audiologist treatment plan, if followed, would have missed conditions identified and addressed in the otolaryngologist's treatment plan. Records of patients seen by audiology but not otolaryngology (Group 2: 1198 cases) were evaluated by a neurotologist who judged whether the patient should have seen an otolaryngologist based on the audiologist's documentation and test results. Additionally, the audiologist and reviewing neurotologist judgments about hearing asymmetry were compared to two mathematical measures of hearing asymmetry (Charing Cross and AAO-HNS [American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery] calculations).
Results: In the analysis of Group 1 records, the jury of four judges found no audiology discrepant treatment plans in over 95% of cases. In no case where a judge identified a discrepancy in treatment plans did the audiologist plan risk missing conditions associated with significant mortality or morbidity that were subsequently identified by the otolaryngologist.
In the analysis of Group 2 records, the neurotologist judged that audiology services alone were all that was required in 78% of cases. An additional 9% of cases were referred for subsequent medical evaluation. The majority of remaining patients had hearing asymmetries. Some were evaluated by otolaryngology for hearing asymmetry in the past with no interval changes, and others were consistent with noise exposure history. In 0.33% of cases, unexplained hearing asymmetry was potentially missed by the audiologist. Audiologists and the neurotologist demonstrated comparable accuracy in identifying Charing Cross and AAO-HNS pure-tone asymmetries.
Conclusions: Of study patients evaluated for hearing problems in the one-year period of this study, the majority (95%) ultimately required audiological services, and in most of these cases, audiological services were the only hearing health-care services that were needed. Audiologist treatment plans did not differ substantially from otolaryngologist plans for the same condition; there was no convincing evidence that audiologists missed significant symptoms of otologic disease; and there was strong evidence that audiologists referred to otolaryngology when appropriate. These findings are consistent with the premise that audiology direct access would not pose a safety risk to Medicare beneficiaries complaining of hearing impairment.