Do Today’s Hearing Innovations Meet Wearer Expectations?
Hearing technology is enjoying a golden age of innovation. Today’s digital hearing aids are more capable than ever of delivering a highly tailored listening experience based on a user’s particular hearing loss and lifestyle.
They’re more stylish—some even resembling the ubiquitous consumer earbuds that people wear to listen to music or make phone calls.
They’re smarter—using technology such as acoustic motion sensors to detect a wearer’s movements and automatically adjust settings throughout a day.
They’re more integrated—into people’s daily lives, with built-in wireless connectivity so they can be controlled, adjusted, or augmented from a smartphone—some even allow wearers to stream music through their hearing aids.
But which of these innovations is most valuable?
That depends on who you ask. I had the opportunity to review survey data from my friends at HearingTracker. They asked more than 12,000 hearing aid wearers about the importance of a slew of modern hearing aid features (and hearing priorities). Their findings are slated for publication in an upcoming article in the Journal of the American Academy of Audiology¹, but they were able to give me early preview.
Data from HearingTracker's consumer survey, as analyzed by Vinaya Manchaiah and Erin Picou.¹
Ranking features and priorities
Perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, hearing friends and family in background noise was the number one priority of the masses. This was followed closely by device reliability, better hearing in quiet settings, and physical comfort.
Although almost 15 percent said it was very or extremely important be able to control hearing aid volume and setting from a smart watch, a whopping 67 percent said it wasn’t at all. Streaming audio from a TV was also a non-priority for most.
Serving each unique individual
To achieve what today’s hearing aid technology was created to accomplish—a better listening experience for all—it’s crucial that patients are able to clearly communicate their priorities to their hearing care professionals. It’s also crucial that hearing care professionals stay tuned to their patients’ priorities, which may not always be what’s cool and new.
In a separate analysis of data from hearing aid wearers, also slated for future publication², HearingTracker examined the relative importance of a few general categories of recent hearing aid innovations: rechargeability, wireless connectivity, mobile/smartphone connection and cosmetic appearance. According to the analysis, wearers tend to be big believers in wireless connectivity as well as a wireless connection with a mobile/smartphone. However, of those surveyed, nearly 40 percent found rechargeability relatively unimportant.
Don’t forget the basics
Together, these reports provide valuable insights to hearing aid manufacturers and hearing care professionals (HCPs). Overwhelmingly, the most important features of hearing aids are those that hearing aids were designed to provide from the earliest days: the ability to hear friends and family in noise and in quiet. Workhorse features like directional microphones, digital noise reduction and feedback cancellers that have been in modern hearing aids for a long time (and no longer receive much marketing attention) but continue to incrementally improve in sophistication.
While the bells and whistles like wireless streaming and rechargeability are added bonuses, what’s most important is simply good hearing in places most important to the individual.
In contrast, features like the ability to stream audio to television, hearing on a landline telephone, direct streaming to a smartphone, invisibility, and rechargeability were rated by the respondents as both important and not important by about the same number of individuals. This variability in responses for many of the newer (and dare I say cooler) features suggests that HCPs must carefully consider the recommendation and use of these types of “nice-to-have” features.
You may say, “Well, that’s obvious.” And maybe it should be. But in this golden age when we’re innovating hearing aids to be smart, connected, lifestyle devices—in large part to encourage greater adoption and that ensure more people who need it seek out the hearing assistance they require—it’s up to manufacturers and HCPs to continually learn from patients about that core purpose. For consumers the results of these surveys are a reminder that it is well worth the effort finding a HCP that takes the time to listen and explain your options in a personalized way.
Innovation for Everyone
The good news is, manufacturers continue to innovate in the areas HearingTracker survey respondents said is most important. At Signia, to cite one example, that has led to the launch of our Augmented Xperience platform, which includes two separate processors: one for sounds in focus, like a conversation partner, and one for the surrounding environment.
Signia AX adds dual speech processing units via Augmented Focus™
We’ve also developed Own Voice Processing (OVP™), a machine learning technology that recognizes the wearer’s voice and processes it separately, so they are less likely to be annoyed by their own voice. Each innovation addresses directly wearers’ priority of better hearing and engagement with friends and family, regardless of environment.
Transition to “lifestyle devices”
The fact is, as an industry, we’re at the dawning of hearing aids as lifestyle devices, where artificial intelligence and smartphone apps can significantly improve people’s experiences. So while we get excited for many of the tech-savvy innovations—the newest Signia Assistant app, for example, actually learns how users hear best and can even initiate remote telecare with an HCP—we can’t lose sight of what’s important to the greatest share of patients today: better hearing in everyday listening situations.
Fortunately, there’s a ton of innovation taking place in that area, too. So much innovation, in fact, that it is now possible for someone with an essentially normal audiogram and self-reported hearing difficulties to enjoy the benefits of better audibility and an improved signal to noise ratio — a segment of the population who until now were not considered viable candidates for hearing devices.
As an audiologist who is also intimately familiar with the latest digital enhancements to hearing aids, I’m reminded that every patient is different. That yes, some will be excited for battery technology that lasts 60-plus hours on a single charge, as Signia developed for its Motion Charge&Go X family. But others will be laser-focused on hearing the people around them better, which is why, for example, during the pandemic Signia created Face Mask Mode, to help overcome muffled speech and improve communication.
Patients need to understand the many new capabilities of modern hearing aids, but should also express clearly their priorities, just as they did in the HearingTracker survey. And HCPs like me need to listen and not get overly caught up in the cutting edge—as great as it is. As the march of new consumer technology has taught us, innovation will find always enthusiastic users at the right time. The smartphone wasn’t an indispensable tool overnight.
Whether a hearing aid wearer is an early or later adopter of new technology, there are capabilities coming to market every year that can make their lives better. And as John Tecca pointed out in a fantastic 2018 analysis on the importance of HCP follow-up care, “If hearing aids were VCRs, the clock would always be flashing 12:00 for most wearers.”³ Cool, innovative features are pretty worthless when wearers don’t know how to use them.
At the end of the day, it’s about taking the time to carefully listen and customize a solution that is best for the individual and judiciously follow-up as needed. Luckily, today we have more tools (features) in our satchel to better meet the communication needs of a growing number of people who benefit from them – as long as we don’t lose sight of what it takes wearers to learn how to use them effectively.
- Manchaiah, V., Picou, E.M., Bailey, A., & Rodrigo, H. (2021). Consumer ratings of the most desirable hearing aid attributes. Journal of the American Academy of Audiology, In Press.
- Bannon, L., Picou, E.M., Bailey, A., & Manchaiah, V. (In Preparation). Consumer survey on hearing aid preferences, benefits, and satisfaction.
- Tecca JE. Are post-fitting follow-up visits not hearing aid best practices? Hearing Review. 2018;25(4):12-22.