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What is an Otologist and What Do They Do?

by Derrick
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Knowing the right medical professional to go to when you have a problem with your body is important. Just as you wouldn’t call a plumber when your oven breaks down, you need the right type of doctor or health professional when a problem with your hearing or your ears appears. In this article we’ll look focus on primarily one question: What is an otologist? To answer that, however, we’ll also need to compare otologists to other, similar professionals.

When it comes to your ears and hearing, there are four different types of health professionals that you could potentially work with to resolve your situation: an ENT, otologist, audiologist, or neurotologist.

What is an Otologist?

The best way to describe what an otologist is and does is to compare him to an ENT (Ear, Nose and Throat) doctor.

An otologist differs from an ENT doctor in that they deal specifically with diseases that affect the anatomical structure of the ear, such as hearing loss from anatomical issues. They know what to do for ear inflammation, eardrums that have been perforated, dizziness, and ringing in the ears (tinnitus).

He has in-depth education on every possible detail of the ear and how it functions. An otologist is a medical doctor or surgeon that performs surgeries that affect the sensitive tissues of the ears. Every otologist may not perform surgery on ears, but most of them do.

An otologist has completed the ENT training first: a bachelor’s degree and 4 years of medical school, and then obtains further 5 years of training specifically on diseases of the ear, base of the skull and the balance system and surgery for these areas. However, his training doesn’t stop there. He will take another one to three years of additional training on ear disorders.

What is an ENT?

An ENT doctor is also known by the name of an otolaryngologist (oh-tow-lare-en-joll-ah-jist). He is specialized in treating diseases, tumors, trauma and deformities of the head, neck and face. The list may also include breathing difficulties, a deviated nasal septum, sinusitis, vertigo and cancer. He may perform surgical procedures and often has to deal with situations occurring with the nerves that control facial movements, vision, the sense of smell and hearing.

An otolaryngologist’s education includes a bachelor’s degree, 4 years of medical school, and an otolaryngology 5-year residency. He is certified by the American Board of Otolaryngology. His training is more extensive in the nose and the larynx than an otologist, but an otologist has more training in the ears than an ENT.

When Do You See an Otologist?

Whether or not you need an otologist depends on what your issues are. You would make an appointment to see either an ENT or otologist for the following situations:

  • You have ringing in your ears.
  • Your hearing has changed recently and an audiologist or other health professional referred you.
  • You have pain in your ears or a discharge.
  • Your child is suspected as having hearing problems.
  • You or someone in your family has middle ear infections.
  • You need surgery on your head or neck.
  • You need cochlear implant surgery.
  • You have something wrong with your throat, sinuses, head and/or neck.

Both an ENT and an otologist spend most of their day seeing patients, possibly performing surgery, and then taking writing medical reports or documenting information on their patients’ medical conditions. The average time spent with patients is 13-24 minutes in the office.

Difference Between an Otologist and an Audiologist

Another health professional that enters into the picture of ear and hearing disorders is an audiologist. An audiologist is a medical professional who has one of three degrees:

  1. a PhD in Audiology Research,
  2. a doctorate in Clinical Audiology, or
  3. a Master’s degree from a university that offers training in audiology.

He or she is trained extensively in how to use the latest technology to diagnose and measure hearing loss and other related disorders such as ringing in the ears (tinnitus) and balance disorders. In order to practice, they must become licensed and certified.

According to the American College of Audiology, an audiologist is “a hearing aid acoustician specializing in the detection, diagnosis and treatment of problems in the auditory and vestibular areas of the ear.”

An audiologist may decide to specialize in hearing aids, cochlear implants, hearing conservation, balance disorders, pediatrics or geriatrics. You will find audiologists working at hearing aid clinics, doctors’ offices, or other medical locations, helping patients find a hearing device to meet their budget and lifestyle.

One helpful way to understand the difference between audiologists and ENT doctors or otologists is to imagine an audiologist as a hearing specialist and an ENT doctor/otologist as an ear specialist.  Once you know that, it should be easier to figure out how to call if you have a problem with your ears.

When Do You See an Audiologist?

You would choose an audiologist in any of the following situations:

  • You feel it’s time to purchase a hearing aid.
  • Your hearing has changed recently and needs to be checked out.
  • You have ringing in your ears.
  • It’s time for your hearing aids to be programmed or maintained.

In today’s modern world, many seniors might first notice their need for a hearing impaired cell phone. Once the volume can’t get high enough on the phone, it might be time to check in with an audiologist.

When you have booked an appointment with an audiologist, he or she will perform a series of tests to determine the cause of your hearing loss.

Anyone can pay privately for audiological services, but if the insurance company pays for a patient’s assessment, the patient is referred by their GP or ENT specialist. Normally, an audiologist in a public practice (such as a hospital or doctor’s office) focuses on hearing tests, hearing aids and hearing aid fittings. This is not the case in private practice; audiologists in private practices do not usually perform examinations and perform hearing tests and hearing aid adjustments more frequently.

Difference Between an Otologist and a Neurotologist

Both an otologist and neurotologist are accepted for a fellowship for treating ear disorders after medical school. Their jobs are closely related. The studies of otology and neurotology are often linked. In fact, many doctors are trained as both otologists and neurotologists. Their goal is to help you preserve your ability to hear, speak, and swallow, no matter what type of condition you have.

However, if a health professional you see is trained in only one of these specialties, then it’s important to see the correct person. If you have a recurring problem with the middle ear or need a complicated ear surgery, an otologist is the right choice for your doctor visit.

If the concern is related to the inner ear, or is neurological in nature, then a neurotologist is the right health professional to see. The inner ear is associated with your sense of balance and your sense of hearing; thus balance disorders and even tumors such as acoustic neuromas or ones located in the base of the skull are all the types of conditions that a neurotologist addresses. A neurotologist also may do surgery for otosclerosis.

Summary

Both ENTs (otolaryngologists) and otologists obtain similar training, but an otologist gets specialized training in the ear. An otologist specializes in the ear while an audiologist specializes in hearing. The difference between an otologist and a neurotologist is that an otologist’s concern is the middle ear where a neurotologist’s concern is the inner ear and the nerves that affect hearing and balance.

Choosing the right health professional is important. Parents with children who are constantly getting middle ear infections should choose an otologist. Those concerned about their elderly parents’ deterioration in hearing would choose a neurotologist. And those who have been affected by cancer in the head and neck would choose an ENT.

Always follow the guidelines of your primary care physician, who will make the appropriate referrals to the health professionals you need for hearing and ear disorders.

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