Hearing loss is the third most common physical ailment in the United States, trailing only arthritis and heart disease, according to the Hearing Loss Association of America. It affects 17 percent of the adults in the country and a third of all Americans aged 65 or older. Audiologists and otolaryngologists, or ear-nose-throat doctors (ENT), both treat hearing loss. Although both are highly trained professionals, there are differences between the two.
Audiologists are specialists in the diagnosis and treatment of hearing loss. They can test a patient's threshold of hearing and level of hearing loss and assess their ability to distinguish between sounds. Audiologists work with patients to help them develop coping skills and provide expert advice on the selection of hearing aids and other assistive devices. Audiologists can clean the auditory canal, fit and adjust hearing aids, or install and program cochlear implants. When the patient's hearing loss has an organic or physical cause, the audiologist might recommend seeing an otolaryngologist for corrective treatment.
ENTs or otolaryngologists are physicians and surgeons who specialize in treating the interrelated systems of the ears, nose, sinuses and throat. They can treat injuries of the ear, malignant or benign tumors, and neurological problems that cause hearing loss or balance problems. Some otolaryngologists treat ear conditions as part of their general practice, while others specialize in treating ears and are known as otologists. They're highly skilled surgeons, able to repair perforated eardrums or fused middle-ear bones among other conditions.
Similarities and Differences
Although there is some similarity in their areas of practice -- both install cochlear implants, for example -- there are fundamental differences between the two. An audiologist's work is primarily palliative: they're not fixing the problem, just making it more manageable. ENTs provide some palliative care, but they're more focused on correcting the underlying problems that cause hearing and balance loss. This fundamental difference is reflected in their training. Audiologists earn a bachelor's degree and then a graduate degree, for a total of six to seven years' training. Otolaryngologists spend eight years in college and then five years in residency, for a total of 13 years' training.
Both audiologists and otolaryngologists are in high demand. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has projected 37 percent employment growth for audiologists between 2010 and 2020, much better than the 14 percent average for all occupations. This is largely due to the aging of the U.S. population, especially the demographically large baby boom generation. The BLS projected 24 percent job growth for doctors over the same decade, noting that prospects were best in specialties treating the elderly. Given the prevalence of hearing loss among senior citizens, otolaryngologists should fit that description.
- Hearing Loss Association of America: Basic Facts About Hearing Loss
- American Medical Association: Health Care Careers Directory -- Audiologist
- American Academy of Otolaryngology -- Head and Neck Surgery: What Is an Otolaryngologist?
- American College of Surgeons: Otolaryngology -- Head and Neck Surgery
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook -- Audiologists
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook -- Physicians and Surgeons
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