Tinnitus affects about 10-15% of the general population and risks for developing tinnitus are rising through increased exposure to leisure noise through listening to personal music players at high volume. The disorder has a considerable heterogeneity and so no single mechanism is likely to explain the presence of tinnitus in all those affected. As such there is no standardized management pathway nor singly effective treatment for the condition. Choice of clinical intervention is a multi-factorial decision based on many factors, including assessment of patient needs and the healthcare context. The present research surveyed clinicians working in six Westernized countries with the aims: a) to establish the range of referral pathways, b) to evaluate the typical treatment options for categories of subjective tinnitus defined as acute or chronic, and c) to seek clinical opinion about levels of satisfaction with current standards of practice.
A structured online questionnaire was conducted with 712 physicians who reported seeing at least one tinnitus patients in the previous three months. They were 370 general practitioners (GPs) and 365 ear-nose-throat specialists (ENTs) from the US, Germany, UK, France, Italy and Spain.
Our international comparison of health systems for tinnitus revealed that although the characteristics of tinnitus appeared broadly similar across countries, the patient's experience of clinical services differed widely. GPs and ENTs were always involved in referral and management to some degree, but multi-disciplinary teams engaged either neurology (Germany, Italy and Spain) or audiology (UK and US) professionals. For acute subjective tinnitus, pharmacological prescriptions were common, while audiological and psychological approaches were more typical for chronic subjective tinnitus; with several specific treatment options being highly country specific. All therapy options were associated with low levels of satisfaction.
Despite a large variety of treatment options, the low success rates of tinnitus therapy lead to frustration of physicians and patients alike. For subjective tinnitus in particular, effective therapeutic options with guidelines about key diagnostic criteria are urgently needed.