By Susan B. Paarlberg, Executive Director, Audiology Foundation of America, and
Tracy Harding, Publicity and Development Specialist, Audiology Foundation of America
It has been almost a year since ?U.S. News and World Report? ranked audiology as the number one ?Excellent Career of 2006.? While this did not likely come as a surprise to those who have already dedicated themselves to the profession and their audiology patients, it does provide a window for viewing audiology with an objective eye turned toward its history and current progress.
Looking Back ? A Snapshot
Historically, audiologists were in the business of patient testing and diagnosis. A diagnosis of hearing impairment would generate a referral to a hearing aid dealer, and that concluded the audiologist?s involvement with the patient. It was not until a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on ethics and the sale of products among members of an engineering organization that audiologists began to open private practices and offer a broader range of services to their patients.
It took another 10 years to fully launch the Au.D. degree concept and begin the move toward doctoral education. The 1988 ?Conference on Professional Education,? organized by the newly renamed Academy of Doctors of Audiology (ADA), put forth a model Au.D. curriculum and created the Audiology Foundation of America (AFA) to pursue the doctoral transformation as its mission. The AFA remains focused on that mission today.
The Status of the Au.D.
The current number of Au.D.s, including data from summer 2006 graduations, stands at 3,878. In a profession of approximately 15,000 practitioners, this represents only about 25 percent of the total. The AFA has long held a transition target of fifty percent ? marking the point at which natural progression will begin to take over and finish the doctoral transition. So while the Au.D. has certainly found its roots, it still needs the continued support of practitioners to garner an additional 4,000 Au.D.s and bring the profession?s transition within reach.
In 1996, Baylor University became the first audiology program to graduate residential Au.D. students. Although it was a class of only three, it marked a clear change in the education model for audiology. Today, 69 residential Au.D. programs exist throughout the country, and they have combined to graduate 711 students to date. An additional 374 new residential Au.D. graduates are expected by next spring, and this residential component will continue to rise as more programs begin to graduate classes.
Distance education also has had a tremendous impact in furthering the Au.D. These programs are designed to act as a bridge for audiologists who want to earn the Au.D. degree, but are already established practitioners. Program credit or advanced placement is given for existing skills and competencies, and this option has allowed thousands of practitioners to join in the profession?s transition while maintaining their current careers.
The five original distance education programs ? Nova Southeastern University, the University of Florida, Central Michigan University, A.T. Still University/Arizona School of Health Sciences (ASHS), and the Pennsylvania College of Optometry, School of Audiology (PCO) ? have graduated a combined 3,167 students since 2000. But this transition was always intended to be time limited, and just two programs, ASHS and the University of Florida, currently remain open as distance education options in 2007.
Where Are We Now?
As the Au.D. continues to gain ground, it is interesting to note the salary differences that exist between Au.D. audiologists and those who hold master?s degrees. According to the 2005 ?Advance for Audiologists? Salary Survey, Au.D.s earn, on average, $60,914. The same survey reported that audiologists who hold a master of arts degree earn, on average, $53,402 and those who hold a master of science degree earn $50,027.
It is important to note the influence of time on income as well. These same statistics have shown that audiology income rises with years of experience. As young Au.D.s spend more time practicing, it is expected that the combined power of their degree and experience will raise overall income levels.
Comparisons to other professional healthcare careers, such as dentistry and optometry, also show a correlation between income and private practice. Data from a 2006 ?Hearing Journal? article shows that audiology has only 19 percent of its practitioners in private practice, compared with 93 percent of dentists, who also enjoy triple the income. It is likely, however, that young audiologists will eventually impact this situation as well. As new Au.D.s gain experience, they will have greater ability to become private practitioners, allowing income to rise in a pattern similar to what has been seen in other healthcare careers.
The Impact of State Licensure
State licensure requirements will continue to play a big role in audiology?s transition to the Au.D. Currently, eight states ? Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma and Montana ? have changed their licensure to require new license applicants to have a doctoral degree, generally interpreted as the Au.D., as a prerequisite to practice. More than 20 other states have also added language that requires either the Au.D. or a master?s degree ? a further sign that the Au.D. is becoming more recognized and accepted as audiology?s degree of the future.
School-Based Practitioners and the Au.D.
A combination of statistics helps to show where school-based audiologists fall in relation to the Au.D. AFA data based on 2005 EAA membership information indicates that 206 members, or 17 percent, currently hold the Au.D. degree ? a number that does not lag too far behind the national average of 25 percent.
A 2005 American Academy of Audiology Compensation and Benefits Report shows that, among survey participants, school-based audiologists represent just six percent of the total, and also receive the lowest compensation when work settings are compared. For them, the Au.D. may bring not only improved patient care and greater professional autonomy, but also a brighter future of opportunities.
?While the Au.D. often means a step up in compensation on the pay scale, and greater access to competitive professional opportunities and positions, it also means something personal,? said EAA member Esther Ginsberg, Au.D. ?Successful completion of the professional doctorate in audiology provides the school-based practitioner with a broader knowledge base from which to furnish the very best hearing services. And not to be dismissed is the greater prestige and respect received when working with students, families and others in school and healthcare environments.?
It is also this respect, prestige and expertise that makes the Au.D. so much more than just another degree. It marks the transition to a new way of thinking about the profession ? one that is professionally autonomous and focused on providing the best possible patient care.
As new audiologists continue to enter the profession with the Au.D. degree, and others pursue remaining distance education options, the transition to doctoral education will be completed. Every audiologist can play a role in this transition ? by rededicating to the profession and supporting the upgrade to the Au.D.