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May 20, 2003

New technology fine tunes fitting of hearing aids

From: Pittsburgh Post Gazette, PA - May 20, 2003

By Deborah Weisberg

Chris Kazar has worn hearing aids since he was 5, when an illness damaged the nerves in his ear. The devices often made him miserable.

"Years ago, audiologists adjusted hearing aids by cranking up the volume," said Kazar, 38, an electrician from Verona. "Along with that, you'd get background noise, distortion, big headaches."

New technology is helping to minimize all three, but hasn't eliminated important steps to good hearing: getting the proper fit and sound, which can require weeks of work between patient and audiologist.

"Hearing aids aren't like eyeglasses in which you instantly see better. Improved hearing takes some effort," said Chris Eckert, an audiologist and president of Hearing Unlimited, with offices Downtown and in Penn Hills.

Recent software developments are helping with the fine-tuning.

Eckert and a half dozen local audiologists use software called the OtoWizard to program hearing aids, measure their output and make adjustments. The audiologist places a tiny microphone at the end of a thin, flexible probe between the hearing aid and the eardrum. He then speaks -- or better yet, has a family member speak -- while the OtoWizard maps on a monitor how the voice is being heard in high and low frequency sound waves.

Kazar, the electrician, is trying out a pricey new set of hearing aids (wearing two for the first time) and having adjustments made with the OtoWizard to help him deal with the background noise on construction sites. The combination so far is improving his hearing and cutting down on distracting noise.

Probe microphone technology, or real ear measurement, has been around for a decade, said Catherine Palmer, director of audiology and hearing aids at UPMC Eye and Ear Institute in Oakland. It uses calibrated or standardized signals.

OtoWizard, instead, uses the human voice. It was developed five years ago by MedRx, a Largo, Fla. company.

Palmer doesn't use OtoWizard with her clients, and said there isn't enough scientific data to convince her of its merits.

But Eckert believes it is the best probe technology for adjusting hearing aids. Like Palmer and others, he evaluates hearing loss with an audiometer, which uses headphones in a soundproof booth.

"My hearing aid is almost perfect now," said Robert Conway, 75, of New Wilmington, a retired college professor whom Eckert fitted with hearing aids five years ago. "It ticked a little when Chris put the probe in my ear, but it didn't hurt. I liked being able to see the results on the [monitor]."

The OtoWizard also can record and play back what a patient is hearing, so relatives or friends can experience their problem.

"I've seen parents cry because they finally understand how what they are saying sounds to a hearing-impaired child, when all along they thought their child just wasn't listening," said Ron Buck, MedRx president.

Hearing loss can result from repeated noise exposure, hereditary predisposition, illnesses such as diabetes, medications and other conditions. And it can start early. More than 10 million Americans between ages 45 and 64 have hearing loss, according to the National Council on Aging. Those numbers increased by 26 percent between 1971 and 1990.

Six out of seven people with hearing loss don't use hearing aids and don't seek help until they are over 60, Palmer said. Waiting years to get help exacerbates the problem.

"The brain eventually forgets how to process some of the subtle distinctions that give meaning to words," Eckert said.

Physicians often fail to address hearing loss, even when it is the consequence of another condition, Eckert said. "People with diabetes are advised about loss of sensation in their feet, or higher risk of infection, but not hearing problems, which are common with that condition.

He said it's more important to shop for the right audiologist than the right hearing aid. "Prices are surprisingly competitive, whether you're spending $500 or $3,000. Audiologists differ."

Not all hearing aid fitters are audiologists, who have extensive training.

Palmer agreed that improvinghearing takes time. "Real life is the best test. The best way to get results is to have clients try a new hearing aid at home for a few weeks, and to keep a journal about what is and isn't working."

Background noise, the most common complaint among wearers, cannot be eliminated completely, she said. However, hearing aids with directional microphones are helpful. It's often necessary to wear aids in each ear, too.

Eckert said larger aids are becoming popular again because they contain more technology. "The first time around, people will want something small and inconspicuous. The second time around, they'll say, 'Give me a bigger hearing aid if it will help me hear better.' "


UPMC Eye and Ear Institute offers free informational clinics about hearing loss and hearing aids the second Thursday of each month. Clinics last three hours. For reservations and more information, call 412-647-2030. The hospital also provides a "Dial-A-Hearing-Screening Test" over the phone to assess hearing. To take the 30-second test, call 412-647-2400.

A support group, Self Help for the Hard of Hearing , meets the second Saturday of every month, except in June, July, and December, at 11 a.m., in room 1176 at the Union Trust Building, 512 William Penn Place, Downtown. New technologies and advocacy issues are often discussed. Audiologist Chris Eckert is program director. For more information about this group, call Eckert at 412-471-4352. Eckert is sponsoring a free consumer seminar 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. June 13 at the Ramada Hotel on Rodi Road in Penn Hills. To register, call his number above.

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