UCSF Audiology Clinic offers world's first disposable hearing aids

By Twink Stern

The University of California, San Francisco Audiology Clinic will launch new
research in October to study the world’s first disposable hearing aids, costing
about $40 and lasting approximately 40 days.

Robert Sweetow, PhD, director of the clinic, said the devices are manufactured
by Songbird Hearing, Inc. of Princeton, N.J. and will be available to patients
in the study later this fall.  Although the manufacturer has market test sites
in other parts of the country, UCSF is the only site where research is on-going
that will compare the disposable aids to conventional hearing aids.

Sweetow explained that these “one size fits all” devices are designed to fit
entirely into the ear canal.  “In reality,” he said, “they actually fit 70-80
percent of adult male ears and about 50 percent of adult female ears.  The
instruments have a very soft ‘mushroom’ cap that fits about half way into the
ear canal.  This relatively deep placement accomplishes two goals.  It produces
a very good acoustic seal that minimizes feedback or whistling, and it may help
to reduce the common complaint that the user’s own voice sounds as if he or she
is speaking in a barrel.” 

The disposable devices last from 30-40 days at which time the encapsulated
battery expires. At this point, the user simply disposes of the old one and
replaces the device.  With the ease of dispensing the disposable hearing aid,
it is hoped that the 20 million Americans who need hearing aids but are not
wearing them will evaluate the use of these new devices.  Studies from the
National Council on Aging have found that hearing impaired individuals who do
not seek treatment are at risk not only for social isolation, but also for
increased stress that can translate to stress-related illnesses.

There are several potential advantages to disposable hearing instruments,
Sweetow said.  Because of their short life expectancy, mechanical and
electrical breakdown or blockage with earwax is not as likely compared to
available hearing aids.  If there is earwax blockage, the instrument can be
returned to the audiologist or simply replaced.  Another major advantage is
that as technology continues to improve, the instrument won’t become obsolete. 
Hearing aid wearers can find it disheartening and a financial burden to spend
thousands of dollars on new devices only to discover that six months later a
better instrument becomes available, he said.  With the disposable hearing
device, there are no additional costs such as battery replacements, repair and
maintenance or insurance.  Finally, there is the advantage that patients can go
to the audiologist and be fitted with hearing aids during the same visit.

According to Sweetow, the quality of the sound produced by these instruments
seems quite good, but these new disposable hearing aids have yet to be formally
evaluated while the current analog and top of the line digital hearing aids
have been evaluated.

The UCSF study will be conducted with individuals currently wearing
conventional hearing aids.  The researchers will investigate several aspects of
disposable hearing instruments:  comfort, ease of use, subjective impressions
of the sound quality, and ability to understand speech immersed in background
noise.  The results will be compared to those obtained by the test subjects’
own hearing aids.

“There are some potential disadvantages to the disposable hearing aids,”
Sweetow said.  The instruments are not a custom-fit, so the actual physical fit
may not be suitable for some ears and the flexibility of the acoustic
programming is not nearly as great as attained by programmable and digital

The disposable aids presently have seven possible “prescriptions” available to
the audiologist.  “One of the biggest concerns is that if these devices become
available outside of professional channels, serious abuses may result,”
according to Sweetow.  “For example, these instruments are meant for mild to
moderate hearing losses only, and these aren’t appropriate for everyone,” he
said.  “If the hearing is not accurately assessed prior to programming by an
audiologist, the wrong ‘prescription’ may be selected.”

“Patients should be evaluated for possible medical contraindications or for
possible related systemic disorders,” explained Sweetow.  “Furthermore, people
hear in their brains, not simply in their ears.”  Professional counseling and
auditory training are required to maximize the effectiveness of hearing aids,
he said.  If disposable hearing aids become available in drugstores, via mail
order, or over the Internet, Sweetow is concerned that patients will not avail
themselves of these essential professional services.

In comparison to the disposable hearing aids, the programmable and top of the
line digital hearing aids cost between $1500 to $2500 for each aid with a
typical life expectancy of three to five years.  The consumer is likely to save
money with the new devices, particularly over the first few years.  However,
Sweetow cautions that the value of hearing is extremely high, and “if the
disposable instruments don’t provide the quality of better devices, the
sacrifice in quality of life for a few hundred dollars is simply not worth it.”

For more information or participation in hearing studies at UCSF, please
contact the UCSF Audiology Clinic at (415) 353-2101.