In late 2009, I learned that I belonged to a group of hearing healthcare professionals who had absolutely no idea that zinc-air batteries had approximately 10% mercury in them. I have been working in our industry since 1980, when battery packages read “mercury batteries.” When zinc-air batteries became available, I mistakenly assumed they contained no mercury. But, since discovering my ignorance in this matter, I have begun to see advertisements in our professional journals for “mercury-free batteries.”
That inspired me to take an online continuing education course from one of the battery manufacturers. I also made phone calls to hearing aid companies and battery manufacturers.
Now, with the goal of sharing some of my experiences with my colleagues so as to assist them in the transition to these batteries, I have prepared the following summary of what I've been doing with my patients in terms of battery education.
PREPARING TO TRANSITION
Battery manufacturers have published literature stating that no mercury will be added to batteries after June 2011. That gives us nearly one more year to learn how these “mercury-free batteries” work in hearing aids. Actually, the term “mercury-free batteries” is a misnomer, as there are traces of mercury even in hearing aid batteries to which no mercury is added.
Phone conversations with representatives of both hearing aid and battery manufacturers revealed one serious question or problem: The mercury-free batteries may be causing the low-battery warning in hearing aids to be tripped far earlier than necessary.
Further conversations with representatives of both battery suppliers and hearing aid manufacturers revealed that size 10 batteries in high-end digital hearing instruments were the most likely to cause false low-battery warnings to occur.
A representative of one battery manufacturer explained that the power levels used are different from those used with batteries containing mercury, and a voltage drop can cause a false warning. I was unable to get solid answers as to how often the warning might be tripped.
Naturally, I became concerned about potential complaints from hearing aid users. When I discovered that some local pharmacies were advertising mercury-free batteries, I knew it was time to provide patient education. Accordingly, I decided to speak with hearing aid wearers about this transition.
Initially, I chose a few patients to serve as sources of feedback on their new mercury-free batteries. But now I'm inviting all my hearing aid patients to contact me about their experiences with these batteries.
From December 2009 through February 2010, the first 3 months in which I asked patients to report their experiences with the new batteries, I confessed to them that I had had no idea that there was mercury in zinc-air batteries. For some reason, starting out with this admission of ignorance seemed to spur interest in my patients, perhaps because they like it when “the professional” admits to not knowing it all.
Then I laid out the discussion to come by telling them I would explain the changes and offer practical suggestions. The first suggestion was for the hearing aid user not to toss dead zinc-air batteries into the garbage in order to keep them out of the landfills. Many of our patients are very environmentally conscious.
The average time I spent on my battery counseling was 4 to 5 minutes per patient. I shared the following with them:
1. The manufacturers say the mercury-free batteries will outlast batteries with mercury by an average of several days.
2. The retail cost of mercury-free batteries should be only slightly more than what you have been paying for batteries with mercury.
3. Batteries with mercury will not be manufactured after June 2011.
4. The low-battery warning may falsely go off after only a day or two of use in a hearing aid.
5. We can consider removing the low-battery warning from hearing aids altogether, especially since many patients become aware that a battery is used up and needs replacing when the hearing aid stops working properly. However, patients with milder hearing losses may not always realize when their hearing aid has quit working and so may want to keep the low-battery warning.
6. Some hearing aids may issue a false early warning and others may not with the mercury-free batteries. In other words, we're all going to be on a learning curve for a while.
Dispensers and battery manufacturers alike are extremely interested in how patients perceive the performance of the mercury-free batteries. We all want feedback to improve the transition.
Many of my patients asked to buy the mercury-free batteries to test them out. As a result, I've received numerous phone calls, but not one patient reported that the low-battery warning had come on mistakenly. That is encouraging. Maybe this is not really a problem.
But if it is a problem, it's one we will all need solved as soon as possible. It's not much of a stretch to anticipate irritated patients walking into our offices and expecting free packs of batteries because they threw out new ones after 2 days.
Almost every patient who replied seemed genuinely interested and appreciative of this educational experience in my office. Change is threatening to some of our patients, but I feel that encouraging them to share their battery experiences helps them feel less threatened and, in a sense, part of the “research team.”
I think it is also important for us to share information with battery manufacturers and hearing aid companies as we learn more about this important shift in battery technology.