The world we live in is bursting with new and exciting technology. As an audiologist I am astonished by the technological achievements that are implemented into today’s hearing aids, while other times I feel constricted and limited. How can this be? I can get into my car, connect to a “smart system”, browse my music and pictures, ask the system for directions by simply talking out loud; the possibilities are endless. Why then aren’t we farther along in hearing aid technology? Why isn’t there a proper “smart” hearing aid? Would we even want one if it existed?
What does the future hold for hearing aid technology and what would I want in a hearing aid? It all depends on the perspective. A hearing aid wearer may desire something completely different than an audiologist. My “ownership” and involvement with your hearing aid is defined and acted upon throughout the fitting process. How I set your hearing aid and fine-tune its features based upon your hearing loss and your personal feedback are static actions that ultimately shape your experience on a daily basis. That is one responsibility I do not take lightly.
Throughout my Sonova experience over the past 10 months, I have had the opportunity to sit down with engineers, fellow audiologists, physicians, and hearing aid wearers and their families. There is one consistent trend that permeates every conversation regarding hearing aid technology: expectations. Expectations of the hearing aid wearer, the audiologist, the physician, the engineer. Every single one differs. Should they? Why aren’t we all expecting the same things? Why, as audiologists, are we taught and continually reminded to discuss “realistic expectations” with potential hearing aid wearers? Who are we to define “realistic”? Is this simply a different way of identifying our technology limitations without outwardly admitting it? Why do we chose to highlight the negative perspective? Who am I to determine that your expectations are “unrealistic”? Why are we placing limitations on hearing aid wearers before they may even trial a device/devices? Would it be so wrong to agree with their expectations? Would they perform better if they had a higher, or more difficult, expectation to strive for?
This mindset spans 20+ years of hearing aid research regarding expectations and benefits. All you have to do is perform a search on the internet about expectations and you will not fall short in finding key words, phrases, and claims such as the following:
Clinicians have known for years that patients typically expect more than what hearing aids can realistically deliver. […] Despite advancements in hearing aid technology, communication in challenging environments is still difficult, even for those with mild and moderate hearing losses.
You may even find lists that have been compiled — from hearing aid wearers as well as audiologists and physicians — of what to expect. Unfortunately they are lists that are long, and quite negative. They range from preparing yourself to spend a lot of money, needing multiple repairs, and will never hearing as well as you want to. We continually focus on what you won’t be able to hear and/or how badly it may sound.
So then — if you were to ask me now what I would want to see in future hearing aid technology, my response would be simple: give me a better way to meet my patient’s acceptable expectations. If they are still having trouble in background noise then let’s dive deeper into noise reduction. If they are still having trouble with soft voices, let’s look at what we can do. From my audiological perspective it is not about how many devices they can connect to, or how many hands free commands they may be able to perform, or even about how visible their hearing aid(s) may be — it’s about the value that the hearing aid adds to my patient’s life. Yes – I will fit you with the most audiologically appropriate hearing aid, as that is my ethical and audiological responsibility, however I will not dismiss your expectations and desires. Hearing family members and grandchildren again, listening to the birds sing, being able to follow a conversation in a loud environment — these all add value and ownership back to a hearing aid wearers life.
Perhaps that is a very “neutral” answer — it’s not specific enough for some people. I could create a list of technological and developmental changes which address the hearing aid chip, the receiver, even the case/body. Would that help? Historically we’ve seen those changes made and new products launched, followed by an increase in adoption of hearing aid use by new users. For some hearing aid users that is enough — they perform well with the technology they are wearing and their needs are met. However we should never dismiss or be overly critical of a hearing aid wearer’s expectations. If we continue to do so, are we to blame for their lack of performance, negative detachment to their hearing aids and subsequent lack of use? We cannot then be surprised when someone forgoes hearing aids upon identification of a hearing loss because of what they’ve possibly heard from others about their “too high expectations” and “realistic goals”. You must give someone something to strive for. It’s human nature.
The future holds many possibilities. We continue to develop new technology every day. I suggest that we look beyond the technology that we have today and integrate value into the entire hearing aid experience. By doing so we actively reveal and utilize the impressive technological accomplishments we have available in our hearing aids today.