World Hearing Day is today, March 3, 2022. On this day each year the Office of Prevention of Blindness and Deafness of the World Health Organization (WHO) hosts an event at the WHO headquarters. Activities related to preventing hearing loss and improving hearing care also take place globally. The theme of this year’s event is “To hear for life, listen with care,” with a specific focus on safe listening at entertainment and recreational events. Researchers from Canada and Germany published an article in JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association) on March 3, “Focusing on the Needs of People with Hearing Loss During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond.”

Marcello Tonelli, MD, is from the Department of Medicine, University of Calgary and Ruth Warick, PhD, is from the International Federation of Hard of Hearing People in Hamburg, Germany, Tonelli and Warick wrote about the common difficulty in understanding people who wear masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, citing 76% of people with moderate hearing loss struggling to hear masked conversations. That share jumps to 95% for those with profound hearing loss. The authors also listed estimates of the 1.6 billion people worldwide with hearing loss, the resulting estimated $1 trillion annual productivity loss, and projections that by 2050, 2.5 billion people will have hearing loss. According to Tonelli and Warick, an estimated 700 million of the affected people in 2050 could be helped by hearing rehabilitation.

Just as hearing loss has many sources and can occur at any age, there are a wide range of preventative and protection measures that can limit the incidence and the severity of hearing damage. According to the authors, improved sanitation, enhanced prenatal care, immunization, and lower occupational exposure to harmful sounds and sound levels can help in low-to-middle-income countries. However, even in high-income parts of the world where those preventative measures are common, unnecessary exposure to dangerously loud sounds is a frequent cause of hearing loss.

Tonelli and Warick mention technology that helps hearing impaired persons including cochlear and middle ear implants, hearing aids, and telecoils as well as programs such as sign language, speech reading, and language skill therapy. The authors cite a new WHO study of the ROI of hearing care investment that estimates a $15 return for each $1 spent.

The authors also delineate a 3-part global action plan to address hearing loss. First, Tonelli and Warick call for a coordinated strategy of ear and hearing care with input from all stakeholders. This strategy would improve on the fragmented and siloed plans that often exist. Second, healthcare systems should partner with patients and families to discover and improve conditions where more accommodations for people with hearing loss can help. Third, funding for research into the causes, consequences, and best treatments for hearing loss should be ramped up to be commensurate with the effects of the condition.

Reporting on a paper such as this is not the usual fare for Health Tech Insider. Tonelli and Warick’s research does not focus specifically on digital solutions to a significant medical or health issue. But hearables and other digital technologies can play an essential role in prevention, treatment, and adaptive assistance to help improve the lives of those with impaired hearing, and those around them at home and at work.