Accessible Audiology in Practice

Portrait of Evelyn Davies-Venn
Photo by Lisa Miller.

Two years into her premedical undergraduate degree, a confused 18-year-old sat down to take a career inventory test as medicine felt less and less like what she wanted to pursue. After taking the test, her top results were audiology and speech-language pathology. 

Encouraged by the instructor of the career orientation class, the student, despite her shyness, found her way to the Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences at the University of Minnesota to find out more about audiology, a degree she knew little about. Unknowingly, she made her way right to the chair of the department, who encouraged her to take an introductory class and see what she thought. This was her aha moment, and she never looked back.

This is the story of Assistant Professor and Director of the Sensory Aids and Perception Lab Evelyn Davies-Venn. No longer the shy 18-year-old student, today Davies-Venn is conducting research of her own that is monumentally impacting the use of and access to hearing aids and other resources for hearing impaired individuals. She makes sure that students like her have the opportunity to pursue the field of audiology through research.

Currently, Davies-Venn splits her time between two related research concepts: improving outcomes of hearing loss and increasing access to auditory healthcare. 

From Hearing to Understanding

“I use several tools to answer the perennial question of how we can make speech understanding easier and better for people who have hearing loss,” Davies-Venn says. 

She notes that while current hearing-aid technology helps some people with hearing loss understand speech in different environments, it isn’t yet to the level of improving outcomes for each person with hearing loss. Davies-Venn’s research looks at how this could be improved.

Using psychoacoustics and computational modeling in her lab and in real-life situations, she is able to accurately model situations in which people with hearing loss have difficulty with speech understanding. She can then determine how hearing aid algorithms can be improved to enhance listening experiences in these moments. 

In order to conduct such research, Davies-Venn looks at the way people adjust their speech depending on the noise level of the environment they are in and how the person they talk with benefits from these adjustments. For people listening with hearing aids, it may not be a natural process. 

Davies-Venn researches whether a hearing aid knows what has been done to make the speech clear, or if it treats all sound acoustically like loud speech. Essentially, Davies-Venn and her team are studying how to preserve speech cues and enhance real-time modifications that hearing individuals do naturally. 

Davies-Venn sees this aspect of research as a celebratory tool instead of a static method. She uses tools to understand why, even with many commonalities between humans, each person is beautifully different in so many ways. “Hearing loss is one of those ways. So I use all these different tools to understand the individual behind the hearing loss and the information I gain helps me develop hearing aid algorithms that can improve their outcomes with amplification especially in challenging environments of speech and noise,” she explains. 

Access for All

The second aspect of Davies-Venn’s research feels to her like an essential piece of any project yet it is often ignored. “I can make technology great, but what good is amazing technology if everybody doesn’t have access to it?” she asks. Davies-Venn and her team have spent ample time exploring the lack of access to technology for hearing-impaired individuals in communities across the state, nation, and world. She understands the desperate need for access to hearing healthcare. 

The dismal numbers speak for themselves. Globally, 460 million individuals live with hearing loss, many of whom are within low-resource communities. Even as a high-resource country, the United States is home to 43 million individuals living with hearing loss, which is projected to increase to 63 million in just the next 20 years. Of those 63 million people, 58 million are likely to go untreated because of the lack of access to audiologists and hearing healthcare. 

Davies-Venn emphasizes that, in high-resource communities such as Minnesota, there is not a lack of audiologists or hearing technologies. There is simply a lack of access to these professionals for a majority of individuals. 

This past summer she completed a project that used Geographic Information System (GIS) technology to quantify access to hearing healthcare across all the counties in Minnesota. “We have a silent epidemic on our hands,” she explains. Accessibility and deliverability are at the root of both facets of her approach to research: optimizing hearing aid technology for the individual and understanding the context and resources available to each individual, allowing her to develop and optimize existing hearing service delivery models that leverage technology with human capital to ensure that everyone can access quality hearing healthcare services. 

Bringing Realness to Research

Davies-Venn’s team is made up of undergraduate and graduate students within the SLHS department. They design a study together and then go out into the world to test it. “I have a lab downstairs, but I also have a lab in the real world, which is the most fun part,” Davies-Venn says. “We go outside to the real world because that's where people have trouble hearing. Understanding an individual and the context in which they communicate better informs the design and access to new devices.” She explains that research can be conducted anywhere, and in the past few months they have done studies in the Purple Onion Cafe on University Avenue, at the state fair, and beside the construction noises happening right outside of Shevlin Hall. 

Insisting upon the importance of research within the field of audiology, Davies-Venn brings what she does in the lab into her classroom to allow students to experience the realness of hearing health and issues surrounding it. Remembering the help she found along her path to audiology, she is adamant about doing the same for the next wave of audiologists and speech pathologists. “Somebody taught me, and I stepped into the shoes of someone, but the students that I teach are going to be stepping into our shoes. We need to train them well to be able to be good clinicians for people that need their services.” 

For further explanation and information about how to promote access to audiology, see Davies-Venn’s recent publication on connected hearing healthcare and its tools.

This story was written by an undergraduate student in CLAgency. Meet the team.

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