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Smaller, Sleeker, Smarter, but Special? A Look at the Latest Hearing Aid Technology

Tumolo, Jolynn

doi: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000532388.60311.96
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Jolynn Tumolo is a freelance writer in Morgantown, PA. Thoughts on something you read here? Write to us at HJ@wolterskluwer.com.

For tech enthusiasts, there's nothing quite like the Consumer Electronics Show—or, as it now goes by, simply CES. For about a week each January, all electronic lovers’ eyes are on the Las Vegas extravaganza and the thousands of exhibitors gathered there to eagerly plug what they hope will be the next gadget to work its way into the fabric of modern life. (Blu-Ray DVD, smart appliances, and 3D printers were some of the technology milestones introduced there over the past 15 years.)

At recent shows, and CES 2018 was no exception, a growing number of hearing aids and hearing-related innovations were among the featured products. This year, Oticon and GN Hearing both walked away with CES Innovation Awards. Oticon was honored for its new HearingFitness app, geared to helping users of Oticon Opn hearing aids adjust their behaviors to maximize their hearing health. After detecting a long day in a noisy environment, for example, the app may suggest an early bed time to compensate for the extra energy expended. Meanwhile, GN Hearing collected three awards for its ReSound LINX 3D and ReSound ENZO 3D hearing aids, the latter of which is billed as “the smallest and most powerful super power hearing aid available” (GN Hearing, 2017).

The continued merging of electronic innovation and hearing aid technology is making for some exciting times in the hearing profession as hearing aids become smaller, sleeker, and smarter. But beware of new products lacking peer-reviewed research to back their claims, warned Kenneth Smith, PhD, the vice president and director of operations at the Hearing Center of Castro Valley at Castro Valley, CA, and an editorial advisory board member for The Hearing Journal.

“Having attended the CES several times myself, it's fun to get caught up in the excitement of innovation,” said Smith, who has logged 40 years in audiology. “Whether these innovations have a significant impact on market share and penetration remains to be seen.” In short, all that glitters isn't gold.

That said, here's a look at some of the latest product trends in hearing aid technology. As with any trend, staying power is not guaranteed.

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CONTINUED CONNECTIVITY

The past few months have seen the launch of more hearing aids and related devices offering Bluetooth connectivity to mobile phones, TVs, and computers. Phonak's new Audéo B-Direct provides direct connectivity to Android phones, iPhones, and even classic cell phones without the need of an extra streaming device. The new Signia Nx hearing aids—Pure 312 Nx, Pure 13 Nx, and Motion 13 Nx—offer Bluetooth connectivity in addition to what the company calls “Own Voice Processing” technology, which is geared to replicating a more natural-sounding user's voice. When used with TV connection accessories, both the Phonak and Signia hearing aids also work as wireless TV headphones.

Along similar lines, the recently-introduced ConnectClip from Oticon is designed to link all modern smartphones, tablets, and PCs with its Opn hearing aid. ConnectClip also functions as a remote microphone that feeds the speaker's voice directly into the hearing aids.

Leisa Lyles-DeLeon, AuD, owner of Hearing 4 Life in Washington, DC, has been using a similar connective device.

“It's really light and small, clips onto a collar or the top of a blouse, and is so versatile. I have it paired to my phone so that when calls come in, I just tap the device and talk. The sound of the caller's voice is routed through both hearing aids into my ears, and as I talk to them they hear me through the receivers of the hearing aids I am wearing. It is a truly hands-free operation,” she said. “Disconnecting the call is as easy as a tap on the device.”

“When I am not on the phone, the same device can be used as a remote microphone on my lunch or dinner date in a noisy restaurant, so we can converse freely,” she added. “It can also be used to help the hearing-impaired user hear during meetings, book clubs, or in similar situations.”

While connectivity is a plus for many, users who are older or who have cognitive impairment may be better off with simpler hearing aids, audiologists caution.

“We love the smartphone connectivity [of hearing aids], but the learning curve for patients and providers is pretty steep,” said Judy Huch, AuD, the owner of Oro Valley Audiology in Oro Valley, AZ, and serves as state commissioner for the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. “The patient doesn't always understand the phone needs an update or because of the update, the hearing aids need to be synced again. The hearing aids are usually first in mind for blame for the patients.”

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RECHARGEABLE BATTERIES

Direct-to-consumer hearing tech company Eargo launched its Eargo Max hearing aids at CES 2018, touting the devices as “invisible and insanely comfortable” for users with mild to moderate hearing loss (Eargo, 2018). A big selling point, reported tech website SlashGear, was the rechargeability of the product's batteries.

Eargo, however, is hardly the first hearing aid company to offer rechargeables. Phonak and Signia have offered rechargeable batteries for several years. Last year, Oticon introduced a rechargeable battery for its Opn hearing aids. According to the company, a pair of rechargeable batteries could save an estimated 150-200 disposable batteries a year (Oticon, 2017).

For patients with limited means, rechargeability is a helpful feature, noted Brian R. Earl, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati.

“We have recently fit many rechargeable hearing aids to patients in southern Mexico as part of the College of Allied Health Sciences’ annual interdisciplinary service trip. Many of our patients there do not have close access to hearing aid batteries or may not have the economic means to purchase them,” he said.

“Patients are used to charging their phone each night, so charging their hearing aids is an accepted aspect of hearing aid use. For patients living in very rural areas without daily access to electricity, USB battery packs can be provided to recharge their hearing aids.”

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APPS WITH BENEFITS

Hearing aid apps that go beyond standard performance controls are beginning to emerge. Using a mix of data collected from the Opn hearing aid as well as lifestyle and health care data sources, Oticon's HearingFitness app nudges users with specific suggestions for optimizing their hearing health.

“The HearingFitness app is designed to provide Opn hearing aid users with advice and encouragement on ways to use their hearing aid more, hear better, and ultimately stay healthy,” explained Michael Porsbo, who helped create the Opn, in an Oticon press release (Oticon, 2018). “The first of its kind, this new app provides data-driven hearing care to empower a digital generation of hearing aid users with insights to enable them to keep their mental faculties sharp and therefore optimize their health.”

If this type of education and empowerment sounds familiar, it's probably because it's something audiologists offer to their patients regularly, Smith pointed out. App users, though, may find on-the-spot monitoring and counsel practical, he added.

“As a hearing aid user myself, and after years of experience, I strongly believe in the KISS principle,” said Smith. “The less I (and patients) need to interact with adjusting the hearing aids, the better. The better the technology (and the professional programming and counseling), the less need for adjustment of the hearing aid's performance, the more likely it is to be used consistently, and the more effective it is likely to be.”

The veteran audiologist is less than excited about the telehealth features of the new myHearing app designed for use with Signia Nx hearing aids. The app offers the potential for virtual house calls and remote hearing aid adjustments. But Smith maintained that, at this point, virtual appointments are a poor substitute for in-person care.

“I do have several patients in other parts of the world with whom I have used telehealth, but its effectiveness has been limited because it is time-consuming and requires visual interaction with the patient in real time to be really effective. By itself, we have not found this a feature that closes sales or moves patients toward dealing with their hearing loss,” he said. “We, in fact, want them back in the office for personalized interaction and care.”

If a mechanism were developed to provide real-time troubleshooting information—such as whether the ear is filled with wax or whether the hearing aid is performing according to specs—during the virtual appointment, the telehealth feature could be useful, Smith conceded.

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DIRECT-TO-CONSUMER LAUNCHES

With the recent approval allowing for over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aid sales, audiologists can expect direct-to-consumer offerings to surface in coming years.

Wear & Hear launched an assistive hearing product line called BeHear NOW at CES 2018. Designed for people with mild to moderate hearing loss, the unit resembles a Bluetooth stereo headset. Earbud maker Bragi announced a collaboration with Mimi Hearing Technologies to develop personalized products, such as earbuds that amplify sound and ease tinnitus throughout 2018. Nuheara too is preparing to introduce a ramped-up version of its IQ Buds earbuds called IQ Buds Boost that allows calibration of each ear for hearing aid functionality. IQ Buds Boost is expected to be released in the second quarter of 2018.

“I am already getting a lot of questions from patients or potential patients about some of the OTC ads they get in the mail. Generally, I think these devices may have merit for those with mild losses who would otherwise not consider using any kind of amplification device to lighten their cognitive effort,” said Lyles-DeLeon. “Those with greater-than-mild losses often have more significant problems either in place or emerging, which simple amplifiers will not likely sufficiently address.”

“The technology is certainly there,” remarked Smith. “But remember that different degrees and types of hearing loss, as well as differences in a patient's ability to utilize the technology, will have a major impact on the results. Again, peer-reviewed research should be part of any such development, and I'd like to see a way for the professional to be a part of these developments.”

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