One of the most advanced wearable technologies today is … hearing aids?

June 29, 2017
By Rebecca Herbig, Au.D., Manager & Editor of Scientific Marketing, Signia

Many consumers still think of hearing aids as chunky, beige prosthetics that are about as sophisticated as a portable CD player. While that may have been true a couple decades ago, the modern hearing aid is a miniature technological powerhouse that can stand proudly alongside other trendy consumer wearable technologies.

More than just a sound amplifier, today’s premium hearing aids can anticipate what the wearer wants to hear while reducing unwanted noise. Many can also provide tinnitus treatment, be rechargeable, be remotely controlled by smartphone apps, and in some cases, even outperform normal hearing.1 More recently, the marriage of hearing aids and smartphones via Bluetooth has served to further blur the line between medical devices and trendy wearables.

Courtesy of Signia

Hearing aids and Bluetooth

Hearing aids compatible with Bluetooth transmission are not new. Even 10 years ago, there were accessories that used Bluetooth to relay audio signals from phones and TVs into hearing aids. In 2014, we saw the first hearing aids to allow direct audio streaming from smartphones into hearing aids without an intermediary device.

While this breakthrough earned significant industry attention, it did not translate to increased hearing aid adoption. For hard-of-hearing patients considering amplification, audio streaming capability in hearing aids, direct or otherwise, is simply not a top priority.

Nevertheless, Bluetooth streaming has become more prevalent in hearing aids in recent years as the technologically savvy and active baby boomer generation addresses their hearing loss, and more, older adults adopt smartphones in general.

Smartphone motion sensors

While audio streaming may not be a deciding factor in hearing aid adoption, better hearing usually tops the list. Modern hearing aids are already incredibly adept at categorizing and processing sounds tailored to the wearer’s listening needs in a variety of listening situations.

Using dedicated transmission technology some modern hearing aids that are meant to fit as a pair, can communicate with each other—exchanging collected information, analyzing it together, and executing processing decisions as a unified system. This binaural processing capability was a major step forward in hearing technology that allowed it to even outperform normal hearing in challenging listening situations and reduce wearer listening effort.2

Courtesy of Signia

These hearing aids are able to automatically focus on a single speaker of interest in a crowded room and amplify this voice while suppressing all other competing sounds. They can detect when the wearer is traveling by car and automatically suppress traffic and engine noise while following the conversation in the car, which can originate from beside or behind the wearer.

Some Bluetooth hearing aids now go one step further and access the wearer’s smartphone motion sensor data. At first glance, the ability to sense motion may seem irrelevant to hearing aid sound processing, but actually, our listening behavior varies depending on our motion state.

For example, when we are walking down the street, our communication needs are typically more dynamic. While speech is still important, spatial and situational awareness is also paramount for our safety. We want to hear the conversation with our walking buddy, but we still want to be aware of nearby traffic. Once we have arrived at a sidewalk café and decide to sit down for a cup of coffee, we become less concerned with the traffic noise nearby and prefer to pay closer attention to our friend.

Bringing patients and hearing care professionals closer together

By using Bluetooth to connect hearing aids and smartphones, we can also leverage smartphone capabilities to improve the interaction between patients and their hearing care professionals.

There are hearing aid smartphone apps that enable text and voice communication between patients and professionals, serve as discreet yet comprehensive remote controls for the hearing aids, and allow wearers to provide daily satisfaction feedback ratings that become visible to the professional.3

Enhanced with Bluetooth, some apps can also capture contextual and objective information from the hearing aid, including daily wearing time, program use, the proportion of time spent in different acoustic environments, the wearer’s volume adjustments, and ambient noise level. All of this information becomes visible to the hearing care professional remotely, without the wearer having to set foot in the professional’s office.

This comprehensive information serves a very practical purpose. Whenever the patient encounters problems or dissatisfaction with the hearing aids’ performance in a certain situation, they can contact their hearing care professional via an in-app text or call. Combined with the patient’s subjective feedback (“it’s too loud” or “I have trouble understanding my friend”), this objective data from the hearing aids allows clinicians to better troubleshoot fittings.

Once a solution is determined, the clinician can even remotely fine-tune the fitting, and send it to the patient’s smartphone app. After the patient accepts the adjustments, they are instantly programmed into the hearing aids.

Patients and professionals will find this capability especially beneficial during home trials when patients are trying out new hearing aids and finalizing their purchasing decision.

References

  1. Froehlich, M., Freels, K., and Powers, T., “Speech recognition benefit obtained from binaural beamforming hearing aids: comparison to omnidirectional and individuals with normal hearing,” AudiologyOnline, Article 14338, May 2015.
  2. Herbig, R., and Froehlich, M., “Reducing listening effort via primax hearing technology,” AudiologyOnline, Article 17275, May 2016.
  3. Ramirez, P., “Telehealth Apps and Hearing Aid Trial Periods: New Technology to Revolutionize Patient Care,” Hearing Review, 23(12), 28, 2016.

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