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New report finds military hearing health is improving

Military doctor inspecting patient's ear Audiologist Major Erin Artz performs a lighted ear inspection on Tech Sgt. Brittany Guynn before completing an occupational hearing screening at the hearing conservation lab at the United States Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. (Air Force photo by Capt. Nichole Griep)

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Hearing injury remains the most reported service-connected veteran disability, as documented by the Veterans Benefits Administration 2019 compensation report; however, noise-induced hearing loss is decreasing for active-duty service members, according to a recently released tri-service report.  

The Hearing Health Surveillance Data Review, Military Hearing Conservation – Calendar Year 2019 report reveals overall hearing health is improving for service members and civilians enrolled in hearing conservation programs.

Army Lt. Col. Martin Robinette, Army liaison for the Department of Defense Hearing Center of Excellence, a division of the Defense Health Agency Research and Development Directorate, collaborated with the DoD Hearing Conservation Working Group to produce the report. Robinette explained how data shows hearing impaired service members fell from 18% in 2013 to 14% in 2019. Report findings also show the percentage of people entering the military with hearing loss improved from 13% in 2013 to 7% in 2019.

Reducing hearing loss is a focal point of the DoD’s policy to protect military personnel and noise-exposed civilians from hearing loss caused by occupational and operational noise exposure through a continuing, effective, and comprehensive hearing conservation program, as stated in the report. The policy also strives to reduce hazardous occupational and operational noise exposure to enhance mission readiness, communication, and safety.

“Each DoD component establishes, maintains, and evaluates the effectiveness of their hearing conservation programs,” explained Robinette, an audiologist. “There are unique differences in mission execution, service member requirements, and expected exposure to hazardous noise, so not all service members are monitored as part of a hearing conservation program.”

The report consolidated measures of effectiveness from all service components, and reviewed service level efforts to prevent hearing loss and improve hearing health of those enrolled in DoD hearing conservation programs. Report data was jointly developed by the hearing conservation working group and the United States Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, Public Health and Preventive Medicine Department, Epidemiology Consult Service Division, and the Defense Health Agency Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch, Air Force Satellite at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

According to Dr. Theresa Schulz, an audiologist and the hearing center’s prevention branch chief, each of the military services has a public health organization responsible for its hearing loss prevention program. The Navy and Marine Corps public health services fall under the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, while the Army Hearing Program is under the Army Public Health Center and the Air Force Hearing Conservation Program falls under the public health branch of the Air Force Medical Readiness Agency.

“Due to significant noise exposures unique to warfighters, both the Army and Marine Corps have enrolled most of their personnel in the hearing conservation program,” said Schulz. 

Another component of hearing conservation is hearing readiness, explained Schulz, which is designed to ensure service members and noise-exposed civilians have the necessary hearing capability to perform their job-specific duties, and the appropriate and properly fitted hearing protection devices for their mission.

“The ongoing challenge is that we must protect service members’ hearing from hazardous noise damage without compromising their ability to hear and communicate in often complex and chaotic environments,” said Schulz.

Those enrolled in a hearing conservation program get annual hearing tests, hearing protection fittings, and hearing conservation education sessions, according to Schulz.  “These noise reduction efforts are important indicators for hearing readiness,” she said.

Schulz emphasized that close collaboration between military operational leadership and medical leadership is also important to help reduce noise hazards and prevent noise-induced hearing loss. 

“Hearing loss can have significant adverse effects on a service members’ mission readiness and ultimately their well-being,” said Schulz. “It’s encouraging to see the decline of hearing injury as a result of each service’s dedication to their hearing conservation and hearing readiness programs. I’m hopeful this trend will continue.”  

For more information about hearing health, visit the DHA’s webpage. Additional information can be found in the 2019 Hearing Health Surveillance Data Review Military Hearing Conservation –CY2019.

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