Hearing Loss: Hearing Aid Technology
Guest: Dr. Paul Lambert – Otolaryngology/Head & Neck Surgery, MUSC
Host: Dr. Linda Austin – Psychiatry, MUSC
Dr. Linda Austin: I’m Dr. Linda Austin. I’m interviewing Dr. Paul Lambert, Professor of Otolaryngology and chairman of the department here at the Medical University of South Carolina. Dr. Lambert, let’s talk about hearing aids, and especially new technology in that area. What’s new on the horizon?
Dr. Paul Lambert: Thank you, Linda. Certainly, hearing loss is a very common problem that affects, literally, millions and millions of Americans. Most people can find great benefit from traditional hearing aids. And the traditional hearing aids are becoming more and more sophisticated as electronics are miniaturized; digital technology, just tremendous differences between our hearing aids today and ones even three years ago.
Occasionally, however, a hearing loss is so profound that a hearing aid is of no benefit. Now, if that hearing loss is present on both sides, a cochlear implant would be the procedure of choice, and it would restore good hearing; hearing sufficient that a person could talk and understand over a telephone in almost all cases. If, on the other hand, the person has good hearing in one ear and simply lost hearing on the other side, a cochlear implant, in that case, would not be the procedure of choice. And there is a new type of hearing aid that has been developed specifically for that problem. It’s called a bone anchored hearing aid, or BAHA.
The BAHA picks up sound on the deaf side and transfers that sound information, through the skull bone, to the other ear; the hearing ear. So, for example, a person who is totally deaf in the right ear could hear someone whispering to them on the right side, but they would actually be hearing it on the left side. The technology is very straight forward. It does require a minor surgical procedure, where a titanium post is placed into the bone behind the ear. That has to heal for about three months. And once that has been completed, the external part, the hearing aid itself, is attached to that post, much like the snap on a pair of jeans; it just snaps onto that post. It’s behind the ear; nothing actually goes in the ear, beneath the hair, so it’s cosmetically almost invisible. A person would take it off when they shower or swim, and then snap it back on when they needed to hear.
It doesn’t help as much with direction of sound, or in a very noisy room, such as a crowded restaurant, or at a party. But for most other situations, patients describe it as being simply remarkable. A lot of times when people have lost hearing on one side, they will relate the fact that that side of their body almost doesn’t exist. So, if, again, it’s the right ear, they will tell me that the right side of their world simply doesn’t exist, because they just don’t hear anything on that side. But with this BAHA in place, it opens up that entire half of their world that they were missing. It’s a great technology, very straight forward. The surgery, as an outpatient, takes half an hour to do, and people smile when they come back.
Dr. Linda Austin: And I bet you smile too. How expensive is the procedure, as well as the hearing aid itself?
Dr. Paul Lambert: Well, it’s interesting. Insurance, governmental or private insurance, doesn’t pay in the vast majority of cases for hearing aids. Now, because this hearing aid does involve a surgical procedure, they do cover this. Medicare and private insurance, for the most part, do cover this. So it’s actually probably less expensive than buying a hearing aid. But, again, it would be for the person who had lost so much hearing on one side, with the other ear being good, that conventional hearing aids simply do not work.
Dr. Linda Austin: So, in other words, partial hearing loss on one side, that person wouldn’t really qualify for that?
Dr. Paul Lambert: We would try a conventional hearing aid first and hope that would do the trick, if not, potentially the BAHA type.
Dr. Linda Austin: Anything else new on the horizon that you can tell us about?
Dr. Paul Lambert: Well, that is the newest from hearing aid technology.
Dr. Linda Austin: Thanks so much for talking with us.
Dr. Paul Lambert: Thank you.
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