The Sacramento Bee

Editorial: Say what?
Can you hear the sound of money?

Published 2:15 am PDT Wednesday, April 20, 2005

To be certified in California as an audiologist - basically, a person who tests hearing and fits people with hearing aids - a candidate must have a bachelor's level degree in communication disorders; complete an accredited master's program in audiology; and then work under a licensed audiologist for 36 weeks.

Given those rigorous requirements, it's hardly surprising that the state licensed only 200 or so audiologists last year, not enough to supply all the hearing specialists California desperately needs. According to the state's Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology Board, the state has a huge shortage of both audiologists and speech therapists.

Now a private professional organization of audiologists wants to impose dubious dictates that are likely to make that shortage worse. The American Speech Language and Hearing Association, or ASHA, accredits college audiology programs in California and around the country. Beginning in 2012, ASHA has mandated that audiologists have an earned doctorate to attain professional certification. Yes, you got that right. If the group has its way, you'll have to have a doctorate level degree to test people's hearing in this state.

ASHA justifies this extraordinary and costly mandate on the grounds that the profession has gotten more complicated in recent years. Critics see something more sinister -a classic case of a professional organization raising barriers to new entrants in order to reduce competition and raise prices for the services of those members of the profession already certified.

The potential impact on the public is huge. An estimated 28 million Americans suffer from hearing loss, but there are only about 15,000 certified audiologists nationally. Increasing the postgraduate program for audiology certification from two to four years, as the ASHA mandate would do, is certain to exacerbate that shortage.

Rather than question the motives and the needs for the change, the California Legislature is rushing to comply. A bill, SB 724 by Sen. Jack Scott, D-Altadena, would permit state universities to offer doctorate degrees "in select professional fields" for the first time. The change would permit the master's audiology programs on five CSU campuses to expand their requirements to offer doctorates too.

Before the state moves in this direction, a number of hard questions need to be asked and answered. What is the problem? Why is the current master's program in audiology inadequate? Is a doctorate level degree really necessary to test someone's hearing? Is a master's degree even necessary? Why does California allow a private organization to dictate its certification policies?

A broader question is whether this push for a doctorate in audiology is a prelude to doctorate level degrees in a number of other professions as well. In its letter of support for the Scott measure, the CSU Faculty Senate forecasts a need for doctorates in other professions, including physical therapy, nursing, social work, communication studies, criminology and health care administration.

Maybe there is a need for doctorates in such fields, but that is far from clear at this point. What is clear is that the Legislature must not act precipitously on this proposal. It sets a dangerous precedent, reducing opportunities for people entering professions while at the the same time driving up costs for health care and education. It's hard to see any case for such undesirable outcomes.

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