Philip Griffin (’07 AuD), an audiologist at the UNC Hearing and Communication Center, is advocating for statewide clarification for the role of audiologist assistant, which could allow for limited telehealth opportunities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Philip Griffin ('07 AuD), speaks with a patient at the UNC Hearing and Communication Center.
Philip Griffin (’07 AuD), speaks with a patient at the UNC Hearing and Communication Center.

Griffin, an assistant professor in the Division of Speech and Hearing Sciences, also serves as legislative chairperson of the North Carolina Audiology Association, where he is also past president.

“Right now, there’s a statement in the law that allows for audiologists to have assistants, but there’s not much detail around it, and there’s no mention of telehealth at all,” Griffin explained. “We thought there might be an opportunity here for assistants to help handle the load.”

Griffin has drafted a temporary rule after consulting with audiologists around the state and with faculty in the division’s Doctor of Audiology program. The temporary ruling would allow assistants to provide telehealth services under the supervision of an audiologist in order to maintain high-quality patient care. Currently, audiologists can provide telehealth services, but audiologist assistants cannot.

If approved by the North Carolina Board of Examiners for Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists and the North Carolina Rules Review Commission, audiologist assistants would be able to assist in telehealth, such as providing informational counseling on how to care for and maintain hearing aids or troubleshoot minor problems. Griffin explained that several states have specific language surrounding the role of an audiologist assistant; North Carolina allows for them, but there is no mention of telehealth opportunities.

“Approving this would allow for the audiologist assistants to have more time to thoroughly teach and describe care and troubleshooting procedures and for the patient to really understand and absorb the information,” Griffin said. “This can be vital for older adults who might already face other cognitive impairments.”

Following the pandemic, Griffin said approval of the temporary rule could have implications for long-term care; it sets the stage to further develop care at the assistant level, as several states have already done. Griffin said this is vital as the older adult population is expected to swell in coming years.

“This is a good opportunity to get some delineation around who audiologist assistants are, what they can do, and to make sure they can help in providing telehealth services,” Griffin said.

Griffin said he hopes the board will approve the temporary rule in coming weeks. Audiologist assistants would need to have a high school diploma or equivalent to be eligible to be hired and registered, and then would need to complete structured on-the-job training. According to Griffin, thousands of patients across North Carolina could benefit from the temporary rule.

Griffin said the COVID-19 pandemic has already led to feelings of social isolation; those feelings can be exacerbated for those for whom hearing is already challenging.

“When you throw hearing loss in with difficulties accessing technology, it compounds everything,” Griffin said. “It’s just particularly important for everyone to stay connected during this time to stay emotionally healthy. Hearing is a big part of that.”

Philip Griffin ’07, AuD, also specializes in dizziness assessment and treatment and is a fellow in the American Academy of Audiology. The Doctor of Audiology program is ranked #5 in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report.