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With success comes ‘great momentum’ in hearing center’s future

Marine Staff Sgt. Charles Mitchell takes the annual audiogram test at Camp Pendleton, California. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Khoa Pelczar) Marine Staff Sgt. Charles Mitchell takes the annual audiogram test at Camp Pendleton, California. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Khoa Pelczar)

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For service members, the ability to hear affects their safety, mission, and quality of life – and remains critical out of the military. The care service members receive is influenced by more than fancy devices and doctors’ visits. The Department of Defense Hearing Center of Excellence works behind the scenes to help ensure that warfighters receive the best care possible for hearing and balance issues.

“It’s part of our job as the Military Health System to make sure that the people we’re sending in to do their jobs, whether it’s in training or in a combat situation, are able to hear and perform to their maximum ability,” said Air Force Col. LaKeisha Henry, division chief for the Hearing Center of Excellence, also known as the HCE.

While it doesn’t directly care for patients, HCE impacts the care patients receive for hearing and balance issues across the DoD and VA. Established in 2009, HCE serves as a platform for collaboration as it builds partnerships with the VA and other organizations, including the National Institutes of Health. Together, their work focuses on the prevention, diagnosis, mitigation, treatment, and rehabilitation of hearing and balance issues.

The center gives providers in the DoD and VA access to current information, education, and training through its development of clinical best practices. These best practices, which serve as recommendations, help shape how providers care for patients with hearing and balance issues.

“It’s our responsibility to do what we can to prevent, diagnose, mitigate, treat, and rehabilitate hearing and balance injuries in service members and veterans, giving them the best opportunity to maintain fitness for duty and the quality of life that they deserve,” said Lynn Henselman, deputy division chief for HCE.

Exposure to loud noises is common in the military. While the wearing of hearing protection isn’t always practical in combat zones, the HCE is helping service members prevent noise-induced hearing loss through its Comprehensive Hearing Health Program. The program promotes proper use of protective equipment, such as earplugs or earmuffs. It also teaches veterans and service members about the effects of noise and why wearing protection is so important.

The HCE is developing an Armed Forces registry to track data on hearing loss, as well as auditory and balance injuries. It shares the data with the VA to help the departments understand the impact of prevention and clinical best practices as service members move from active duty to veteran status. For patients, this allows for continuity of care.

Roughly 1.6 million veterans had a service-connected disability for tinnitus – the humming, ringing, buzzing, or other sounds in the ears or head – and more than 1 million veterans had a service-connected disability for hearing loss in 2016, increasing every year, said Henselman. According to the Veterans Benefits Administration, tinnitus and hearing loss are the top two service-connected disabilities among veterans.

“HCE has a great network of advisors from the MHS, DoD, VA, and NIH who come together to understand what research is ongoing, what research capabilities are available, where we have gaps, and how to close those gaps,” said Henselman. The center provides expertise that informs and advises many important outlets, including Congress and the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. It also provides information to leadership across the DoD, VA, Veterans Health Administration, and Defense Health Agency.

DoD and VA audiologists offer a variety of prevention, diagnostic, and rehabilitation services for members of the military and veterans, as well as state-of-the-art hearing aids, tinnitus maskers, and cochlear implants. Henselman recommended a discussion with a health care provider for anyone who suspects a hearing or balance issue linked to a traumatic brain injury.

“Our focus on advocating for hearing and balance health initiatives for service members and veterans, especially when tinnitus and hearing loss is on the rise, is important,” said Henry. “There’s a great amount more to be done and I believe good things will come.”

Learn more about the DoD Hearing Center of Excellence.

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