I have no doubt that there are audiology students who know with every fiber of their being that they want to work in research after graduation.
That was not me.
When I finished my undergraduate education, and was contemplating graduate schools, I specifically chose a school that would give me the best possible clinical experience. Trauma hospitals in the city? Check. Children’s hospital? Check. School-based audiology? Private hearing aid clinics? Suburban hospital? Check, check and check.
I spent the first half of my career working in clinical settings, transitioned over to industry in 2005, and in 2015 I joined the Phonak Audiology Research Center (PARC) as a research audiologist. Before joining PARC, I spent ten years as a tech support audiologist, refining my troubleshooting skills and learning Phonak’s product portfolio.
There is nothing remarkable or terribly exciting about my journey to “the other side”, but having spent almost equal time on both sides of the fence, I can confidently say that clinical audiology and industry research audiology are not as different as I previously imagined.
We both work with real people and use clinical skills
Most of the studies that we do at PARC are clinical studies, which means real people are involved. Clinical evidence is needed for establishing credible claims and listing our devices with regulatory agencies, both in US and Europe. It only makes sense then, that a clinical background would be advantageous.
Indeed, there is a lot of work involved prior to the actual start of a clinical study. Study preparation includes defining the study population, collaborating with the R&D team to determine the study design and procedures, and preparing the equipment, which often consists of prototypes and new software. Not to mention, during the study, there are regulatory requirements that need to be met, documentation, statistical analysis, and report writing.
Benchmarking and technical measures are often done prior to any testing on real ears, and these require unique skills to be sure, but I do believe the stars of our show are our participants. In the medical field, research questions have often been based on the “culture of the laboratory”, but in order to achieve true translational research, the research must focus on the realities and the needs of the patients (Sacristan et al, 2016).
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is where the clinical audiology background is relevant. There are the obvious clinical skills that are needed, such as otoscopy, cerumen removal, hearing testing, and hearing aid fitting. As an industry research audiologist, I am still taking case histories, completing audiograms, dealing with masking dilemmas, programming hearing aids, and helping people to connect hearing aids to their smart phones. But there are other skills, not as obvious, that can only be gained from real world clinical experience.
We both strive to understand and improve patient experiences
Our purpose, both as individual audiologists and as an organization, is to offer the best hearing solutions to every hearing impaired person. We are constantly striving to improve our products, but in order to do that, we need to know about hearing aid user experiences, both good and bad.
We must establish trust with the participants and interact with them. Yes, a well-designed research study is necessary to ask the right questions and utilize appropriate testing methods for collecting data, but clinical experience ensures the patient understands the task at hand, and it means being able to adjust to the patient’s abilities.
Clinical experience includes knowing what hearing aid adjustments are needed when the fitting doesn’t go as planned, and understanding what is and what is not realistic for a hearing aid user to accomplish during a home trial. Counseling, instructing, and taking the time to listen to participants are all skills we’ve learned clinically, but are necessary when running a study.
We both contribute to the research
I’ve met clinical audiologists who say “I could never work in research”. Whether they think it’s just about statistics, or holing up in a dark booth with just a computer and KEMAR for company (admittedly, I have spent entire days doing both), the truth is that our jobs are more similar than one might assume. The research guides clinical practices and relevance, but it’s a two-way street. We rely on the experiences of clinical audiologists (and patients) to steer the research.
In other words, clinical audiologists contribute and “work” in research whether they realize it or not, and research audiologists must draw on clinical skills to obtain realistic and reliable outcomes. These two audiology careers are not on opposite sides of the spectrum from each other, rather, they are intertwined, and have much more in common than many people realize.
To learn more about the industry research at PARC, we invite you to read Ashley Wright’s recent article.
- Sacristán, J. A., Aguarón, A., Avendaño-Solá, C., Garrido, P., Carrión, J., Gutiérrez, A., Kroes, R., & Flores, A. (2016). Patient involvement in clinical research: why, when, and how. Patient preference and adherence, 10, 631–640. https://doi.org/10.2147/PPA.S104259