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Phones and hearing aids: no more static

Riddle Hospital December 1, 2015 General Wellness By Denise Stewart, MS, CCC-A

Modern hearing aids have become highly sophisticated in recent years, offering hearing aid users high-tech features like superior noise reduction, information sharing between binaural hearing aids, and automatic program changes in response to the user’s sound environment. With so much technology, it seems difficult to believe that many hearing aid users report difficulty hearing well on the phone.

In a recent study published by the American Journal of Audiology in 2009, the authors reported that over 70 percent of experienced hearing aid users performed poorly when using the phone.

Why the difficulty with phone conversation in light of many high-tech hearing aid advancements? For those with at least a moderate degree of hearing loss combined with significant speech recognition loss, phone conversation presents special challenges, including:

Absence of visual sues – Patients with a greater degree of hearing loss are usually more dependent upon seeing the person they are talking to in order to fill in gaps in the conversation. When using the phone, these visual cues are absent. They must rely on audition alone.

Background noise – Those of us with normal hearing understand the challenge of holding a telephone conversation in a noisy or busy environment. Have you ever closed your non-telephone ear because your environment was too loud? Imagine that you have bilateral hearing loss, with hearing aids that amplify both the sound from your phone and the environmental noise. An impaired auditory system has difficulty handling this scenario without access to visual cues.

Acoustic feedback – While modern hearing aid technology has virtually eliminated random acoustic feedback, placing a telephone handset next to the microphone of a hearing aid may cause some feedback. Even if it lasts only moments, this can be irritating to the hearing aid user, as well as their partner on the other end of the phone.

Positioning the phone – The loudness and clarity of the phone signal can vary significantly with very small changes in the position of the telephone handset relative to the hearing aid microphone. While experienced hearing aid users may be able to quickly position the phone for maximum audibility, maintaining this position is difficult for long phone conversations.

In recent years, there have been some technological solutions made to help improve the experience of using a telephone and hearing aid together. These solutions include:

Telecoils and hearing aids – A telecoil is a small, magnetic induction coil that is in some hearing aids and most landline telephones. When the telecoil is used or the hearing aid is placed in 'T-mode', the hearing aid amplifies only the phone signal, eliminating any potential for feedback and amplification of background noise. Telecoils are inexpensive and many behind-the-ear hearing aids come already equipped with this device. Placement of the phone on the hearing aid must be practiced using the telecoil mode.

Wireless streaming and hearing aids – Modern hearing aids now have the ability to stream audio signals directly from electronic devices, including cell phones. Wireless streaming eliminates background noise, has no potential for acoustic feedback and gives a binaural hearing aid user the advantage of hearing phone conversation in both hearing aids. Placement of the phone is not an issue, as the phone does not need to be close to the hearing aids. Research has shown that hearing aid users perform best with wireless streaming. Additionally, smartphones offer hearing aid users the ability to obtain visual cues with use of applications like Skype and FaceTime (iPhone).

The audiologists at Riddle Hospital are a team of caring professionals who are ready to evaluate and advise you regarding your need for further medical evaluation and hearing treatment. To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (1.866.225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.

Denise Stewart, MS, CCC-A is a clinical audiologist at the Audiology and Hearing Aid Center at Riddle Hospital.