There are many different types of hearing care professionals. While their practices may seem similar, each one has their own unique services they offer. It’s important to know when is the right time to see an audiologist vs. an ENT. For those that have hearing loss as a result of a medical condition or congenital deafness, we’ll outline the role of the speech pathologist as well. Here are some of the ways to make sure you’re finding the right one for your hearing needs.
“Oto” is Greek for “ear.” An otologist is an ear doctor. However, there are many different kinds of medical professionals that deal with conditions of the ear, including otolaryngologists, ENT doctors, audiologists, and speech and language pathologists.
Ear, Nose and Throat Doctors (ENTs)
Otolaryngologists are commonly referred to as ENT doctors or simply just ENTs. They are able to diagnose, treat, and in many cases surgically correct medical conditions concerning – you guessed it – the ear, nose and throat. The requirements needed to become a certified otolaryngologist include one year of general surgery, at least four years of otolaryngology resident training, and passing a certification examination for the American Board of Otolaryngology.
While ENTs can help with a variety of different issues, they do not specialize as much in the sense of hearing or cases of hearing loss. They can pass along their insight and professional opinion, but will eventually recommend you to an audiologist. An audiologist is more specialized in hearing-related issues and has equipment that an ENT does not, such as a sound-treated booth. This allows them to administer audiometric hearing tests.
If you are in need of a hearing test, interested in learning more about hearing aids or experiencing tinnitus, save yourself an extra trip and just schedule an appointment directly with your local audiologist.
Daily Work of ENTs/Otolaryngologists/Neurotologists
These doctors have acquired the skills necessary to manage:
- Sinusitis & Allergy
- Voice and swallowing problems
- Masses of the neck
- Trauma to the face and neck
- Ear infections
- Hearing loss
- Other problems arising from the structures of the head and neck
Specialization in Otolaryngology
After completing residency training, these doctors must take a written and oral examination to become board certified. The American Board of Otolaryngology has the role of ensuring professional standards of training and knowledge.
Within this broad specialty, there are several subspecialties where otolaryngologists devote their time to one or two specific areas of otolaryngology.
These subspecialties include:
- Pediatric otolaryngology (children)
- Sinus surgery
- Facial plastic and reconstructive surgery
- Head and neck cancer surgery
- Laryngology (voice and swallowing)
- Skull base surgery
Otology goes hand in hand with neurotology. Neurotologists study nerves and the way that nerve damage interacts with conditions like those mentioned above.
Many doctors in these sub-specialties spend 1-3 years of special training in addition to the general otolaryngology training. Often, research is included in the subspecialty training and these doctors become leaders in research related to the field of otolaryngology. These doctors are more highly-specialized, and a general ENT may refer a unique case over to such a specialist, as in the case of someone with Ménière’s disease.
Including general training, there are other machines otologists can specialize in to advance their careers, while having the option to treat more patients.
Audiologists primarily work with patients who have issues with their hearing and balance. They examine individuals of all ages and identify those with the symptoms of hearing loss and other auditory, balance, and related sensory and neural problems. An audiologist uses a variety of tests and procedures to assess hearing and balance function to fit and dispense hearing aids and other assistive devices for hearing. Audiologists have an Au.D. in audiology.
Based on these distinctions, you would want to first seek out an audiologist if you have noticed a change in your hearing or if you have been struggling to understand people in day to day situations. The symptoms of hearing loss can manifest in many ways. For instance, you may find yourself asking others to repeat themselves often. If you have more trouble hearing in crowds than usual, or feel like the background noise is all muffled together constantly. You may find difficulty with higher pitches like women or children’s voices, or be experiencing tinnitus (ringing in the ears).
There are a number of ways to get hearing loss, whether it be age-related or specific to a certain instance. Luckily, more than 90% of hearing loss cases today are able to be treated and improved with hearing aids. An audiologist is essentially a wizard when it comes to hearing aids. They will be able to conduct a thorough examination to find the ranges of frequency/pitch that you have the most difficult with. That information allows them to program your hearing aids to your exact needs to create a better quality listening experience.
With the arrival of many over-the-counter or direct-to-consumer hearing aids that are able to be purchased without a professional, it’s very important to remember that audiologists are valuable resource. When you are adjusting to a new set of hearing aids, an audiologist is there to help guide you along the way.
Audiologists can also provide support in the form of repairs and replacements for hearing aids. If you are a longtime hearing aid user and need to have your devices reprogrammed, an audiologist can make changes after taking an updated audiogram. This does not apply universally to all audiologists and all hearing aids, so make sure to give yours a call before your visit to make sure they service your type of device.
In some cases, your audiologist might choose to refer you to an ENT based on their exam of the ear if you have a medical condition that requires additional treatment. There are many other conditions with side-effects linked to hearing loss. Some of which include diabetes, osteoporosis or autoimmune disorders.
Additional help may be required if a patient is diagnosed with a congenital hearing loss – meaning from birth – or deaf, or a new cochlear implant wearer. In these scenarios and others, there may be a need for a specialist in the field of language development. An audiologist may recommend establishing a routine with a speech and language pathologist.
Speech and Language Pathologists
Speech and language pathologists (SLPs) work with a wide variety of individuals. Many of their patients have experienced a traumatic incident such as a stroke or coma and need rehabilitation of their speech skills. Others have a severe hearing impairment and did not have the same language development during their formative years. There are also a significant amount of patients with forms of dementia. Unfortunately the disease can deteriorate the areas of the brain responsible for speech cognition. These patients have difficulties communicating or projecting their speech.
Speech pathologists teach individuals to regain these abilities through training, vocalization, and speech control techniques. For example, a SLP may play speech games or reading activities with a hard-of-hearing child to help with language development. SLPs develop a very real connection with their patients, and it is a very rewarding profession without doubt. It is a very selfless choice to spend your time helping others regain their abilities to connect with the world again.
Audiology and ENT Office Procedure
General practitioners, dentists, and eye doctors all recommend you come in once a year to see them. Similarly, your hearing should be checked once a year.
Audiologists can determine types and degrees of hearing loss and whether hearing aids will help. They may conduct a hearing test by playing several sounds of different frequencies with and without background noise and at various volume levels. If the test indicates hearing loss, you may be a candidate for hearing aids and a specialist will discuss hearing aid types and options. This specialist is usually someone that is licensed and certified to sell hearing aids.
An ENT can offer medical and surgical treatments that audiologists cannot. The ENT can make sure there’s no medical reason, such as a tumor, for the hearing loss, and may then refer you to an audiologist. If you haven’t already seen an ENT doctor, and the audiologist suspects medical problems, the audiologist will recommend seeing an ENT doctor for further evaluation.
For emergencies like ruptured eardrums, head trauma, and respiratory blockage visit an emergency hospital, 24-hour walk-in clinic, or (as last priority) an ENT clinic. See medical doctor first, in cases of ear emergencies, not an audiologist.