Our senior audiologist Sally French has seen amazing advances in hearing aid technology in the past 20 years.
Here she charts the main changes which have astounded and impressed her in equal measure.
Analogue hearing aids
I first started working with hearing aids in 1999 as an audiology assistant. The first hearing aids I worked with were analogue and these hearing aids were not adjusted using a computer. Instead, I would use small screwdrivers similar to those in a Christmas cracker to turn the volume either up or down.
At the time I thought these hearing aids were amazing as patients would come into the office sometimes not hearing at all and when they left they could hear.
There were obvious limitations: the hearing aids were loud, there was feedback and they weren’t very clear. One of my original patients even had a body worn hearing aid. It was too old for us to buy a replacement but a local radio repair shop helped us to keep this hearing aid plodding along.
Digital hearing aids
Very soon after I started, digital hearing aids were introduced and to me they were a revelation. Suddenly we could connect the hearing aids to a computer and adjust their settings to make it louder or clearer.
We had smaller in-the-ear hearing aids and so could offer more discreet aids. This removed vanity as a barrier to wearing them. I started to realise that the patients were happier and their hearing was better as I now had more control over their hearing aids.
Digital hearing aids got better and we could add programs to patients’ hearing aids to help them in difficult hearing situations or to use the telecoil (loop) system.
Receiver-in-the-ear hearing aids
In 2006 the first receiver-in-the-ear hearing aid was introduced. This allowed patients to have more powerful, smaller aids. Having the speaker in the ear meant that the sound being produced was closer to the eardrum, creating less distortion and greater clarity of sound.
A few years later the first waterproof hearing aid was produced. For most patients it was not necessary to have a fully waterproof hearing aid but these improvements in technology led to overall improvements in the reliability of modern hearing aids.
Most aids these days have a very good IP rating of 68. An IP rating is a standard that is used to define the levels of sealing effectiveness of electrical items against dirt and moisture.
In 2014 the first hearing aid with artificial intelligence was launched. This now meant we could program a hearing aid with the settings we wanted it to use in most environments. We could also program different outputs for various types of situations such as hearing in background noise or listening to music.
These hearing aids also had datalogs which allowed us to see how and when a patient was using the aid. This additional information allowed us to do more fine tuning for the specific uses the patient needed. AI technology also led to mobile phone apps for patients to use alongside their hearing aids.
Patients could use these apps to stream mobile phone conversations or adjust the volume of their hearing aid. In the latest versions of this technology patients can now create their own settings on their hearing aids. This means that while experiencing a problem with their hearing, such as at a wedding party or a restaurant with a low ceiling, they can adjust the volume, tone, microphone direction or noise reduction specific to that particular environment.
I can personalise every hearing aid
All of these advancements over the last 20 years have astounded and impressed me. A patient once gave me an analogy. He said that wearing his older NHS hearing aids was similar to when he had a car with manual steering. He loved that car and was happy with it. But when he bought a new car with power steering he wondered how he ever coped without the extra help.
That was the same feeling he had with his new AI hearing aids. New hearing technology has brought with it many additional features, gadgets and gizmos. It has given me the ability to personalise every hearing aid fitting to the individual patient in front of me.
It is rare that I fit the same hearing aid more than once in a week. Even rarer that I take the same approach. My total focus now is on which situations does the patient struggle in and which approach is going to best help them. Things change but at Hearbase – and for me – the patient’s success at hearing better is the most exciting thing of all.