Hearing Health: Changing Perceptions From Ho Hum to "Code Red"

Hearing Health: Changing Perceptions From Ho Hum to "Code Red"

Hearing loss can profoundly affect one's experience of life, from the ability to communicate with others to the enjoyment of nature and one's environment. Many donors have experienced firsthand the frustration and isolation associated with hearing loss, as well as the relief and life-changing benefits of timely, quality treatment.

Some of these donors helped establish the House Ear Institute as a center of hearing research in 1946, and over the past sixty years have supported multiple research programs focused on developing new diagnostics and treatments for hearing loss and related disorders. Gifts from private donors and foundations, which account for more than 50 percent of HEI's overall budget, have helped research scientists at the institute and collaborators at other centers achieve many milestones in the field, including the cochlear implant and auditory brainstem implant (ABI), reliable methods for early detection and removal of brain tumors (acoustic neuromas), improved hearing aids and tests, and advanced surgical techniques for ear procedures, among others.

May is "Better Hearing and Speech Month," which makes it an ideal time for a discussion of the importance of good hearing health and an examination of why hearing research and medicine deserve more attention as a viable philanthropic interest. More than 30 million Americans suffer from some type of hearing disorder. Fifteen out of every one thousand children in the United States have a hearing loss, and for those over the age of 80, the figures rise to nearly 90 percent. In fact, hearing loss is one of the most prevalent health problems in the world, affecting more people than blindness, diabetes, heart, kidney, and liver disease combined. Yet research that could advance treatments and cures for hearing disorders receives limited funding due to a perception that it is not as crucial as research for life-threatening illnesses.

The federal government, through its National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has recognized the importance of hearing research by funding a significant percentage of studies at the House Ear Institute and other research organizations focused on hearing health. But with the NIH budget being cut in 2006 for the first time in thirty years, the scramble for federal funding, which has always been competitive, has become even more intense. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the success rate for grants could dip more than 10 percent this year. The reason given by NIH for cuts to areas such as hearing and cancer research is the need for "targeted" shifts in funding to protect the population at large from imminent threats. For scientists not involved in research on bioterrorism and work related to "code red" national security issues, this means an even greater reliance on state and private funding.

Private funding can help offset the reduction in government grants and contracts for scientific studies, but garnering those funds in support of hearing research is more difficult than one might imagine. Though there is currently enormous wealth in the private sector and the country is on the cusp of a significant transfer of wealth from parents of baby boomers to boomers themselves, convincing donor prospects that hearing science is worthy of large gifts to advance research is a challenge. Take, for example, the donor who recently bestowed $100,000 on the House Ear Institute to support important pediatric hearing research and then turned around and wrote a check to a local university for $20 million. Far from being the exception, such behavior is commonplace and merely underscores the fact that hearing health is perceived as less worthy of big dollars than life-threatening diseases or higher education.

Faced with that reality, the institute and other hearing science centers need to develop strategies aimed at moving them onto a bigger playing field in a game that continually grows more competitive. To that end, fundraisers and marketing and communications departments need to work even harder and smarter to educate our key publics on the breadth and scope of what we do for those with hearing loss and related disorders. At the end of the day, it is up to those of us in the field to convince people that hearing loss is a more serious and urgent problem than they realize, and that the time to do something about it is now.

Daniel M. Graham and Christa S. Nuber are EVP of Development, Marketing & Communications and director of Media Relations & Communications, respectively, at the House Ear Institute, which is engaged in the scientific exploration of the auditory system from the ear canal to the cortex of the brain.