Electronic Design
“Can You Hear Me Now?” Also Pertains To Miniature Hearing Devices

“Can You Hear Me Now?” Also Pertains To Miniature Hearing Devices

Welcome to our first ever Medical Everywhere issue. With medical electronics playing a larger and larger role in the medical industry, we felt it important to increase our coverage this year. In addition to this issue, we will host a Medical Everywhere day—five webinars on a single day pertaining to various aspects of medical electronics design—later in 2011.

A pet project of mine this year is investigating the latest in hearing aid technology. My wife’s 89-year-old mother, Olivia, can still hear, but not all that well. She tried using a hearing aid in her early 80s—an expensive proposition that did not go well for her. When I checked the situation a few years ago, I found that a plastic piece used to hold the battery in place on one of the hearing aids was broken. Since Olivia lives in an assisted living facility in Upstate New York, about 100 miles from us, attending to problems such as this usually takes some serious planning. My wife’s sister lives only a few miles from Olivia, but with five children, doesn’t always have time to attend to her mother’s needs.

The broken hearing aid was eventually replaced, and I thought Olivia was on her way to a better hearing experience. Not so. Apparently, the batteries wear down faster than expected, since Olivia never mastered the art of turning them off when not in use and had no clue about how to change the batteries.

I don’t blame this on the hearing aids’ manufacturer or the audiologist who prescribed them, since I’m sure many people are capable of dealing with hearing aids and benefitting from them. Olivia, unfortunately, is not one of these people.

I often find myself listening to phone conversations between my wife, Lorraine, and Olivia. Lorraine will say something to her mother. In a louder tone, she then repeats what she just said, and then in a much louder voice says something like, “Can you hear me now?” And she’s not referring to a Verizon Wireless cell-phone connection.

Talking to Olivia in person also is difficult. I assume she does some lip reading while figuring out what the muffled sounds are, since sometimes she will understand what I’m saying. But other times, I just get a smile and a nod.

Sending the Hearing Aid Down the Canal

As for the latest in hearing aid technology, I saw an ad in my local newspaper for a device called the Lyric hearing aid. I thought it looked promising.

I investigated it on the Internet and found that it is a device that is placed deep inside the ear canal, so it’s a semi-permanent device (see the figure). You wear it for four months at a time and then need to have the audiologist remove the device, replace the batteries, and place it back in the ear again.

I visited the company’s Web site, but couldn’t really find the information I wanted—namely how much it costs and whether or not the device could help a much older person whose hearing had gotten worse over time.

As with all topics of significance on the Internet, there’s a blog about hearing loss. I finally located a blog called Hearing Loss Help by Neil Bauman, PhD, where lots of people were chiming in regarding their experiences with the product. I found out that the Lyric hearing aid costs $3600 per year, and at least one person had fitted her 87-year old mother with the device and reported that it was working well. In addition, there is a one-month trial period, so Olivia can give it a test run.

I also came across a competitor to the Lyric device called the Invisible Hearing Aid and a couple of companies offering implantable hearing devices: Otologics and Envoy Medical.

Otologics has developed the Carina hearing system, while Envoy Medical has developed the Esteem hearing implant. One of the key differences is that the Esteem implant does not employ either a microphone or speaker in its system.

An implant probably isn’t a solution for Olivia at her advanced age, but a younger person with a hearing impairment might consider it.

Finally, I didn’t bother to check on the state of the art in traditional in-ear or behind-the-ear hearing aids, since I don’t think my wife or her sister would consider this type of solution for their mother again.

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