1 March 2023
Whether they work in consulting rooms, soundproof booths, makeshift community health clinics or other settings, Australia’s audiologists play integral roles in diagnosing, treating and preventing hearing and vestibular disorders among thousands of people.
But there is a key issue: not everyone gets to experience equal and affordable access to hearing care. Fortunately, policies are shifting to help audiologists tackle these inequities. As of today, 1 March 2023, there are fundamental changes to the Medicare Benefits Schedule, which governs which healthcare services are rebated by the Government’s Medicare insurance scheme.
The only way that Australians used to be able to claim a Medicare rebate for a paid hearing assessment was to get a referral from an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist or a neurologist. Now, the rebated referral pathway has expanded significantly.
“You can now claim a Medicare rebate for a hearing service after being referred by any medical practitioner, whether they’re a paediatrician or a GP, just like you would for an eye examination. It’s going to make a huge difference.”
Nicole Bowden is the Principal Audiologist and Manager of Victorian Hearing, an independent chain with 10 clinics across the sprawling Greater Melbourne area. Approachable, confident and friendly, she exudes a sense of calming reassurance that you’d hope for in a healthcare professional.
Like many other audiologists, she believes the Medicare changes will break down financial barriers that may have prevented someone from booking a hearing test.
“People often enquire if there is any Medicare rebate for hearing tests. When there isn’t, it’s often a deterrent for them to book an appointment. But now there are more rebates available,” Nicole says.
“There will also be benefits from the health professional side. Now that audiology is Medicare rebatable, medical practitioners will be more likely to refer to us for services.”
Changes to Medicare are widening access to hearing care.
Providers joining forces to improve people’s lives
Highlighting inequities to hearing health access and further integrating ear and hearing care within primary healthcare are important initiatives of World Hearing Day 2023, with its theme ‘Ear and hearing care for all! Let’s make it a reality’.
Nina Quinn, an Audiology Australia Accredited Audiologist and the CEO of Neurosensory, one of Australia’s largest multistate, comprehensive hearing care providers, headquartered in Brisbane, says the Medicare changes will naturally encourage other healthcare providers to work more closely with audiologists, leading to better patient outcomes.
“I think there is an emerging opportunity here to build new relationships in the healthcare system,” explains Nina.
“First of all, we’ve got a new level of access for Australians in regional and remote areas, where there may be no neurologists or ENTs, which will encourage audiologists and other healthcare professionals, like GPs, to work closer together.
“Secondly, there’s a real opportunity now for audiologists to help other professionals get the job done to treat patients. We can help them exclude sinister pathology and help them understand if there are any acute conditions that need a further referral.”
Driven by her personal and family history of hearing loss, Nina is highly passionate about broadening access to hearing care for larger cohorts of people, to help them more easily interact with the world around them.
While the Medicare changes represent a more fundamental opening of access, Nina is also hopeful that there will in the future be changes to the Hearing Services Program (HSP), a Government initiative offering free or subsidised hearing assessments and hearing aids to eligible Australians aged 0-26, 65 and older, or belonging to other demographics.
“I would like to see the HSP expand to include Australians aged 27 to 64. It’s a cohort where access to hearing care is largely self-funded, and robust economic modelling indicates that expanding access to this cohort, and investing in their hearing rehabilitation, will have enormous community and social benefit,” Nina says.
“There shouldn’t be any discrimination on who can access hearing care based on age, economic means or location. ‘Ear and hearing care for all’ means no one should miss out. No one should be left behind on this fundamental access to such an important sense.”
Audiologist and Neurosensory CEO Nina Quinn believes that access to hearing care should be universally available.
The vital work of audiologists in creating a sound future
An ageing population means that audiologists will become more important in the healthcare system as hearing and vestibular (balance-related) disorders become more common.
About 3.6 million people have some form of hearing loss in Australia, with this number expected to more than double to 7.8 million in 2060, according to the Department of Health and Aged Care. Hearing loss can often be linked to tinnitus – a condition where someone has the lived experience of ‘hearing’ ringing, buzzing or whooshing with no external source – and increase the risk of falls, isolation, anxiety and depression.
Luckily, getting a hearing assessment is usually easy for the patient in question. And for both the patient and the audiologist treating them, the results can be both personal and powerful, explains Nicole.
“There’s a lot of joy when you make such a vital difference to someone’s ability to hear. As a paediatric specialist my youngest client was an eight-week-old baby. I remember crying with the parents as I turned on the hearing aids and we saw their child begin to hear well for the first time.”
Ready for your hearing check? Find an audiologist and book your appointment today.