Patent Could Fix Hearing Aid Performance For Everyone

Let’s face it. Hearing aids have been a problem.

Remember Carl Fredricksen’s constant frustration with his hearing aids in the popular Pixar film Up? Unfortunately, there is some truth to Pixar’s depiction of hearing aids. Hearing aid feedback (loud squealing), excessive noise, and over-amplification can still be a problem. Anyone who has worn hearing aids for more than 5 years can recount numerous embarrassing occasions of older models squeaking in the middle of a dinner party or providing overwhelming amplification of car and wind noise.

Carl Fredricksen from the Pixar film Up

Carl Fredricksen from the Pixar film Up

Thankfully, the last few years have provided a number of significant advances in hearing aid technology. Directional microphones have led to real-world improvements in understanding speech in noisy situations, while digital algorithms like wind-noise reduction and noise suppression have increased the comfort of wearing hearing aids in windy/noisy situations. Feedback suppression has also become increasingly effective, ending the days of squeaky hearing aids for many contemporary hearing aid wearers (it can still be a problem for those who require lots of amplification).

One significant problem remains though, and this is something we’ve talked a lot about (see when to replace a hearing aid) on Hearing Tracker. A large majority of hearing aids are still not verified by hearing aid fitters at the time of hearing aid fitting. Industry experts estimate that only about 20-30% of hearing aid fitters use proven hearing aid verification techniques to ensure hearing aids are fitted to the patient’s hearing aid prescription. What does this mean for you? It means your hearing aid may be too soft, too loud, not providing as much help as you need, or making the world a noisier place than it needs to be (and possibly adding unnecessary squeaking too).

Bernafon to the rescue

The US patent office recently published Method of adapting a hearing device to a user’s ear, and a hearing device (US20160255448 A1), owned by Bernafon AG. The patent is very exciting as it suggests a method of verifying a hearing aid fitting, without requiring the hearing aid fitter to purchase expensive verification equipment, and importantly, reducing the amount of time and expertise required by the hearing aid fitter to achieve a successful hearing aid fitting. Here’s some background form the patent:

There is an uncertainty about the sound pressure produced by a hearing instrument when located at or in an individual user’s ear. The uncertainty arises from the a priori unknown individual ear characteristics. Individual ears can differ in the geometrical shape and volume of the ear canal and the properties of the tympanic membrane. These factors influence the acoustical behaviour of the ear when it is stimulated by a hearing instrument.

This section of the patent describes the problem. Every ear is different, so to ensure a good hearing aid fitting, verification (on the individual ear) must be performed. As any hearing aid wearer can attest, there are some times that the sound from a hearing aid can seem perfect, and other times that the hearing aid can seem weak, or too loud. Bernafon’s patent discusses one possible source for this issue:

Further, when placing a hearing device comprising a loudspeaker (receiver) in the ear (RITE), the placement in the ear canal of the loudspeaker can vary from time to time, and may therefore create different resonances in the audio band. This will create a “different” acoustic fitting each time the hearing device is mounted in the ear.

The brilliance of Bernafon’s patent is that it could help ensure a robust hearing aid fitting every time, on everyone, even when the hearing aid is inserted deep one time and shallow the next. This could be a complete game changer for both hearing aid fitters and hearing aid wearers, and if implemented effectively, could usher in a new era of customer satisfaction with hearing aids (the average rating for a hearing aid on Hearing Tracker is about 70%).

Self-fitting hearing aids

I do have one lingering question about this technology. In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about self-fitting hearing aids, or hearing aids that don’t require an audiologist or hearing instrument specialist to configure. While Bernafon’s patent could lead to technology that revolutionizes patient care, it could also bring about a new more effective over-the-counter product, that could be easily fitted by consumers at home. We would love to know more about Bernafon’s intentions with this new technology, as I’m sure many of you would as well.