Physicians Hearing Network (PHN) is the only program of its kind, offering innovative audiology and hearing aid services within the office space of primary care providers throughout the United States.
Affecting approximately 50 million Americans, hearing loss often goes undetected until it has a significant and negative effect on quality of life. The hearing professionals at PHN are on a mission to shift the narrative.
The San Antonio-based company, which launched in January 2019, is designed to provide patients with convenient access to free audiology and hearing aid services by delivering them inside the practices of qualified primary care physicians.
PHN Founder William McCrae developed the idea while managing his other enterprise, Spectrum Audiology. A company that operates in the otolaryngology space, Spectrum Audiology serves as an audiology services provider within the offices of ENT specialty groups. However, McCrae recognized that there was room for that business model to grow and evolve.
“Over the years, as we were becoming more familiar with health care in general and the needs of those who are seeking care in regard to their hearing, we saw a number of things occurring,” McCrae says. “One is that our primary care physicians did not have the resources to provide testing or consultation to patients who were asking them for guidance or consultation regarding their hearing loss. Generally those patients were being referred to an ENT.”
According to McCrae, the referrals were not always the best use of patients’ resources. Roughly 10% of hearing loss is the result of a medical condition that requires treatment, but many of the patients he encountered experienced hearing loss induced by age or noise.
“The hearing loss could have been tested and diagnosed at a primary care physician’s office,” McCrae says. “And if the patient wanted, it could have been treated there, as well.”
To further investigate the best way to meet the needs of these patients, McCrae and his colleagues at Spectrum Audiology reached out to patients and the primary care community to determine whether patients would prefer to stay at a PCP’s office for audiology services. The answer was an overwhelming “yes.”
A Meaningful Partnership
Motivated to improve patients’ access to the hearing services they needed, McCrae collaborated with one of Spectrum Audiology’s lead consultants, Chuck Redepenning.
“I had some experience in the primary care area, and when we started talking about providing audiology services in those providers’ offices, I was immediately for it because I knew a bit about that space,” says Redepenning, who is now the President and Chief Executive Officer of PHN. “Doctors would — if we put together the right business model — embrace it and enhance the services they already provide to their patients.”
In their research of the primary care market versus the ENT market that was already being served by Spectrum Audiology, McCrae and Redepenning recognized the opportunity to reach patients at what they would call the front lines.
“Patients might be reluctant to either go to a new doctor or a retail store to have their hearing tested. They are more likely to want to get everything done at their own doctors’ offices,” Redepenning says. “It is all about convenience. And in our research, we read many articles from medical associations, including the AMA, which pointed out that the primary care physician needed to do a better job at identifying hearing loss in their patients at that level. Armed with all of this information, we put together a compelling business model and formed PHN.”
Expertise in Action
Many development and sales professionals with Spectrum Audiology have shifted their focus to PHN, working to communicate the company’s mission with PCPs and to recruit hearing services providers.
“It was a nice and easy transition thanks to having Spectrum Audiology in place for four plus years,” Redepenning says. “I think that is what makes us very effective. We have come from a position of strength through the ENT space. We were ready and able to adopt a lot of practices that we already had in place.”
Onboarding hearing instrument specialists and hearing aid dispensers is one critical objective that PHN has been pursuing. Specifically, these individuals, who are already licensed clinical experts, participate in boot-camp style training to prepare for the type of environment they will encounter in PCP’s offices. Once trained, these skilled hearing service providers collaborate with physicians to provide comprehensive hearing evaluations inside of each practice.
By bringing portable equipment into the clinics and setting up hearing test stations in existing exam rooms, PHN hearing service providers can deliver a turnkey solution to PCPs at no cost to them.
“Patients are very comfortable being in the same exam rooms they have visited in the past, with these doctors,” McCrae says. “We do not need to set up special areas.”
Once the equipment is in place, the hearing service providers conduct testing with sound meters to ensure that the rooms where they are providing service meet each state’s decibel level requirements. They then perform comprehensive hearing tests using the same state-of-the-art equipment used in ENT offices, capturing important results about each patient’s hearing. These screenings may be offered as part of annual physicals or wellness exams at no additional cost to the patient, enhancing PHN’s value to doctors and the people they serve.
“We usually are, on average, in a physician’s office twice a week,” McCrae says. “We can see a lot of patients on those two days, so it’s not disruptive to the physician’s practice at all.”
In addition to conducting the hearing screenings free of charge, PHN also does not bill patients’ insurance or ask for copays. In the event that PHN providers detect a degree of hearing loss that impacts a patient’s ability to communicate, they determine whether to refer the patient to an ENT or to offer amplification or hearing aid assistance. If a patient chooses to try hearing aids, PHN providers will offer subjective testing via real ear measurement to evaluate the efficacy of the hearing aid fittings.
“Our patient-centric culture ensures that patients will be educated about how to wear hearing aides, how to use them and how to maximize their use,” McCrae says. “There is a lot of technology involved in hearing aid fittings. Now they are Bluetooth; they are wireless; they interact with your phone and TV. Having people who truly know how to program those products is important. You want to ensure that the patients get everything they can potentially receive, in terms of benefit, from their hearing aid.”
“The Physicians Hearing Network business model is groundbreaking. We are delivering hearing health services at the point of care, which nobody else is doing today.”
— Chuck Redepenning, President and Chief Executive Officer, Physicians Hearing Network
The Importance of Early Detection
While hearing loss is not necessarily life-threatening, it does threaten the quality of life for those who experience the condition. When left untreated, it can have social and monetary consequences.
“For 90% of the population with hearing loss, their hearing loss is so gradual that they do not even realize it is happening,” McCrae says. “You may have hearing loss that is five, six or seven years in development before you actually seek help. At that point, you have probably been turning up the TV, leaning in close and having things repeated more often, and those behaviors could be socially impacting your life and the lives of those around you.”
Additionally, individuals with untreated hearing loss have decreased earning capacity because of the condition. They may also experience brain changes and problems with auditory attention, comprehension and memory. However, with timely treatment in the form of hearing aids, an estimated 95% of individuals with hearing loss can improve their condition and quality of life. This rate of success has far-reaching implications, according to Redepenning.
“I think our program helps lower the overall cost of health care by detecting hearing loss and then doing something about it,” Redepenning says. “A lot of health issues, such as depression, dementia, early onset of Alzheimer’s and several other things, are related to hearing loss. If we address and treat hearing loss early on, we are helping to preserve those patients’ health and safety.
“Primary care physicians can help individuals at risk for cognitive decline and the early onset of dementia; they can help preserve and extend their mental health and independence; and they can reduce the risk of injury-causing falls,” he continues. “Treating hearing loss is key, and I think that’s a very important part of what we’re doing.”
To learn more about Physicians Hearing Network, visit phnusa.com or call 210-479-HEAR (4327).
Sterling Creative Photography