By Ellen Dolich
I have several pet peeves about the things people say about hearing aids. Comments like, "They're way too expensive," or "They don't really help," are commonplace. Some people put them in the same category as buying a car or a cell phone. Others think they are dorky or just for old people. Listen up: Hearing aids can be a "game-changer" for those with hearing loss.
A hearing device properly fitted and programmed is the go-to medical device for 36 million Americans. That number accounts for 17 percent of the U.S. population, according to the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders in Bethesda, Md.
Do people deride pace makers or prosthetic limbs? Rarely, if ever. Hearing aids are medical devices too, and are just as vital to improving the quality of life as any other biomedical device. And the Baby Boomer generation needs them more than ever after decades living in increasingly noisy environments. So why is it that just one in four people with hearing loss wear them? Perhaps misleading information is one reason.
A case in point is the Oct. 22, 2012, article in The New York Times entitled "The Hunt for an Affordable Hearing Aid," written by a hearing aid user describing the experience of replacing her 10-year-old hearing aids. The writer refers to buying hearing aids on the "cheap" and of shopping around to get the best possible deal.
As the parent of a daughter who wore hearing aids for 15 years, when the day came that I had to get them, I knew exactly what to do: I went to a well-qualified audiologist, one I was referred to, who offered a wide array of hearing services and devices. I put my trust in her to inform and help me find the best option.
I have learned that hearing aids are mini computers -- some as small as a split pea, yet more powerful than a desktop computer.
A lot of research and development goes into the latest technology that balances designing software to simulate human hearing and hardware that can stand up to the ear's hostile environment (moisture, wax and bacteria.)
Yes, hearing aids can be expensive -- some brands and models more than others. Since hearing loss is a low-incidence disability, market demand isn't strong enough to drive costs down. And unfortunately most insurance companies do not offer coverage unless the hearing loss is caused by a medical condition.
Because the costs of buying hearing aids can be prohibitive or hearing aid fittings can be uncomfortable or unsuccessful for some, you hear more and more about people turning to bulk distributors such as Costco or online companies that may eliminate certain services to reduce costs and shorten the process.
Buyers beware! Did you receive comprehensive diagnostic testing of your hearing? (I received about 10 different tests including speech testing in soft and loud environments). Did you receive follow up evaluations to make sure your hearing aids work for you? (In California, dispensing audiologists are required by law to provide trial periods for new hearing aids for up to one month before you settle on a device.) Is your progress being evaluated periodically during the first year of purchase?
Audiologists, not large corporations, are designed to fit you with the best possible hearing aid.
According to audiologist and co-owner Dr. Jane Baxter of Pacific Hearing in Menlo Park audiologists can help you determine which of the 400-plus hearing aid models work best for you so you don't have to make that choice.
Hearing aids are not a one-size-fits-all type of device. Each hearing aid user requires custom testing to determine which hearing aid will work best. Dr. Baxter emphasizes that 50 percent of success in hearing aid fitting is the technology chosen, and 50 percent is the expertise of the person fitting the patient.
Therefore, beware of those hearing aid dispensers who sell just one or two types of hearing aid -- the company might be pushing certain brands to provide lower priced products, regardless of which technology is best for you.
Can this process be time consuming and sometimes daunting? Yes, but it is time well spent to get the right fit.
Ellen Dolich is a Bay Area writer and producer of educational materials with a focus on disabilities.