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Pilot DoD/VA hearing program virtually trains technicians

Military personnel sitting in front of laptop Army Lt. Col. John Merkley, Army Hearing Program manager with the Army Public Health Center, prepares for a virtual course to train DoD hearing technicians from across the globe in August 2020. The course is part of a first-ever distributed learning DoD/VA hearing technician training pilot program. (HCE Courtesy Photo)

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According to the National Institutes on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, approximately 37.5 million American adults aged 18 and over report some trouble hearing.

To help to improve service member and veteran access to hearing health care, the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs recently initiated a pilot program designed to train by virtual means more than 5,000 hearing technicians.

The DoD-VA Hearing Technician Training and Certification Program is a Joint Incentive Fund pilot project initiated by the DoD Hearing Center of Excellence in 2019, to train hearing technicians to the nationally recognized standard of the Council for Accreditation in Occupational Hearing Conservation (CAOHC). The pilot will also seek to demonstrate the efficacy of distributed online training, and if it is as beneficial as onsite training for this particular course work.

“The DoD and VA hearing technician course is leading the way in establishing a distributed learning CAOHC course,” said Dr. Theresa Schulz, prevention division chief for the center. “If successful, this will become another effective way for the audiology community to conduct CAOHC-approved courses.”

According to Schulz, training to the national CAOHC standards ensures that the course meets best practices in hearing health care delivered across the continuum ­ from service member to veteran status. Course graduates who pass the standardized exam receive CAOHC-approved certification that meets Occupational Safety and Health Administration and VA Office of Disability and Medical Assessment requirements.

The initial pilot training focuses on Army and VA hearing technicians. According to the center’s Dr. Kathy Gates, the pilot program has already graduated 187 Army hearing technicians and 60 from the VA. Gates, who helped to design the training, also stated that recertification is required every five years.

Hearing technicians are trained and certified to perform basic hearing health duties, such as conducting air conduction audiograms (hearing tests), hearing protection device fittings, and hearing health education. Hearing technicians working for the DoD also support the hearing conservation mission, and those who graduate can serve as Occupational Hearing Conservation technicians. This certification enables them to administer air conduction threshold testing using the Defense Occupational Health and Environmental Readiness System-Hearing Conservation (DOEHRS-HC) system, which collects, maintains, compares and reports hearing readiness, deployment, and hearing conservation program data for DoD personnel. They also provide hearing protection training and hearing health education to support the hearing conservation mission.

Essy Sanchez, an Army civilian hearing technician from Fort Carson, Colorado, attended a virtual class in August. Sanchez said the experience was very helpful: “I found the information regarding the hearing protection and patient education very engaging and useful in helping me develop my knowledge. This course increased my confidence in my job and I was able to immediately return to the clinic and apply what I learned to my duties.”

Schulz explained that with more hearing technicians certified to perform these duties, she believes it will free up time and enable DoD and VA audiologists to focus on more complex audiology cases, resulting in increased access to care. 

So far, DoD and VA instructors have conducted six courses since the program kicked off in April 2020. The Army Hearing Program will continue to offer classes every other month through FY21 beginning in November 2020, according to Army Lt. Col. John Merkley, Army Hearing Program manager with the Army Public Health Center. He added that the last virtual DoD class, held August 24-28, trained 45 Army, Navy, and Air Force students from around the globe.

Schulz added that as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, other CAOHC course directors have developed and implemented their own online training courses. “Results indicate this model is successful in providing the didactic portion of the course. Based on current changes we face with the COVID-19 national emergency, the online hearing technician training and certification course is timely and we believe it will become a new hybrid model approach to training.”

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