FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Study Shows Telemedicine Improves Hearing Care for Rural Children
Nome, Alaska – A team of researchers found that telemedicine is key to faster follow-up care for rural children who receive school hearing screenings. The Hearing Norton Sound study, approved by the Norton Sound Health Corporation Board of Directors, was conducted in communities across the Bering Strait region and involved NSHC audiologists and village clinic staff. It was published on June 15, 2022, in The Lancet Global Health journal, which is a leading journal for advancing the global impact of research.
“It was a lot of hard work with a lot of collaboration,” said Samantha Kleindienst Robler, Ph.D., Au.D., audiologist at NSHC and a principal investigator on the study. “We couldn’t have done it without our community partnership and engagement, and I’m so happy we were able to bring the results back.”
Rural Alaska Native children experience disproportionately high numbers of ear infections and rates of childhood hearing loss. It is important to catch issues with hearing early before they can impact learning and, eventually, employment opportunities. In rural areas, school screenings are often the only access to preventive health services for children, and the follow-up care can be difficult to achieve when providers for these specialty services are scarce.
The Hearing Norton Sound study aimed to find out whether telemedicine referrals would impact the time to follow-up for school hearing screenings compared to standard primary care referral, which typically consists of a letter home to families.
Starting in 2017, the study enrolled students in the 15 village communities of Bering Strait School District. Students either received the new telemedicine referral or the standard primary care referral. Of the children receiving telemedicine referral, over twice as many received appropriate follow-up as compared to the standard in-person primary care referral.
The study was led by Drs. Kleindienst Robler, and Susan D. Emmett, M.D., MPH, and was funded by Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute. It involved 1,481 child participants, of whom over half screened positive for follow-up care.
Dr. Kleindienst Robler said one of her key takeaways from the study was NSHC departments worked together to streamline the telemedicine process, which increased the follow-up rate more than two times and connected children 17 times faster.
“We did over 101 interviews to learn about when (telemedicine referral) worked well and when it didn’t and have a clear direction on what to investigate next to take the technology and telemedicine models to the next level,” she said.
Another positive outcome according to Dr. Kleindienst Robler was that the team identified a more accurate way of screening children in areas where there are higher rates of ear infections, and they believe this work could have important impacts on screening guidelines.
As to what she hopes comes from this study, Dr. Kleindienst Robler said children in rural areas everywhere can benefit from better access to care, with NSHC serving as a model.
“We hope to see accessible, affordable, and lay friendly screening technology that accurately screens hearing, as well as refinement and implementation of telehealth models to support access to specialty care for children living in rural areas,” she said.