Using a rolling clinic, researchers help identify those with hearing loss and find general health problems, including diabetes and cardiovascular issues, are often associated.
By Jamon Smith
Photos by Bryan Hester
When Dr. Marcia Hay-McCutcheon moved to Alabama to work with people who have cochlear implants – an implantable hearing aid – she had, at the most, 15 people in her studies.
Fifteen people doesn’t make a research project.
“So, I started to think, ‘why am I not getting larger groups of people?’” says Hay-McCutcheon, an Ontario native and auditory expert at The University of Alabama. “Just looking around at what was available in this area for hearing health services made me realize that there could be a lot of people who haven’t been identified.
“If they’re not being identified, then, obviously, they’re not being helped.”
The reason that many people weren’t quickly helped became obvious: they lived below the poverty line and lacked transportation to get to a hearing exam, even if the exam was free. A rural, neighboring county illustrates the point.
“Greene County’s poverty level is 32 percent. There’s no way lots of people there can get to an urban area and have their hearing checked.”
This swift realization changed the way Hay-McCutcheon, who started her career as a primary school teacher before later working specifically with deaf and hard of hearing children, approached her data gathering.
Instead of having the people come to her, she had to go to them, but the audiology equipment she needed to conduct a proper hearing screening wasn’t exactly portable. So, she approached Dr. Robert Olin, dean of UA’s College of Arts and Sciences, with an idea: a mobile hearing center.
“He talked with other administrators on campus at the time, and this truck came about because of the generosity of those individuals,” she says.
The mobile hearing center is a large recreational vehicle, or RV, that’s been turned into a fully equipped mobile audiology clinic.
The truck can be used for diagnosing, evaluating and assessing hearing loss and issues that accompany it.
“We have two sound booths. Each sound booth has all of the state-of-the-art equipment to test hearing. I don’t know of any other university program that has this wonderful, fabulous, mobile audiology clinic.”
Since December 2015, about 400 people – 150 in the counties and the rest at health fairs – have been screened.
The truck goes out year-round — two to three times a month. It generally sets up in widely used public spaces.
“We see some people who come just to get their hearing tested, but the majority we see do have hearing loss and they all want help,” she says. “That’s why I’m trying to get funding for hearing aids to help these individuals.”
Hay-McCutcheon, who holds a doctorate in hearing science, says hearing loss impacts every part of a person’s life, in terms of communication. If a person can’t hear well, they cannot communicate well, and they start to withdraw, which causes their quality of life to deteriorate.
Screenings can determine the level of a person’s hearing loss through the truck’s sound booths and testing equipment.
Once a person sits inside of the glass booth, they don headphones and are instructed to press a button when they hear a sound. Sounds of varying volumes are issued from the headphones in both ears or in either ear to discover the softest sound, or threshold, a person can hear.
“There are degradations of hearing loss,” she says. “When we test your hearing, we’re using decibels. So, how many decibels, or how loud does the sound have to be in order for you to hear it?”
Responding to sounds between 0-25 decibels in both ears — across different tones – indicates normal hearing. If a person hears sounds between 26-40 decibels, that’s a mild hearing loss. Other ranges indicate moderate, moderately severe or severe loss. Everything above 90 is profound loss, which is considered deaf.
According to Hay-McCutcheon’s preliminary data – they have a year’s worth – there seems to be a higher prevalence of hearing loss in rural areas compared to urban areas.
“The other thing that we found is that physical health is highly associated with hearing loss,” she says. “So people who have other physical health conditions are also more prone to hearing loss.
“One of the things that we did find is that cardiovascular issues and type 2 diabetes are conditions that a lot of people in rural counties have, and they’re also associated with hearing loss. So, if there is a higher prevalence of diabetes and other cardiovascular diseases in rural areas, there is also a higher prevalence of hearing loss. That’s what the next phase of the project is going to look at.”
Dr. Hay-McCutcheon is an associate professor in UA’s department of communicative disorders. UA’s College of Arts and Sciences, the Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development and its Research Grants Committee all provide funding for the project.
The University of Alabama, part of The University of Alabama System, is the state’s flagship university. UA shapes a better world through its teaching, research and service. With a global reputation for excellence, UA provides an inclusive, forward-thinking environment and nearly 200 degree programs on a beautiful, student-centered campus. A leader in cutting-edge research, UA advances discovery, creative inquiry and knowledge through more than 30 research centers. As the state’s largest higher education institution, UA drives economic growth in Alabama and beyond.