Editor's Message: Technology Alone is Not Enough to Traverse the Digital Divide

Author: Brian Taylor, Au.D.

Since the early '90s, the Hearing Instrument Association (HIA) has published its quadrennial MarkeTrak survey. It provides audiologists with a glimpse of how hearing aid owners and non-owners view the strengths and shortcomings of hearing aids and professional services. Over the past 30 years, the MarkeTrak survey is not more than a couple of papers, summarizing the data and authored by an HIA representative. In contrast, the latest survey, MarkeTrak 10 (MT10), is a series of a half dozen papers published in Seminars in Hearing, all authored by independent researchers. As usual, it is a treasure trove of information for conscientious audiologists.

One of the more remarkable findings, published in the MT10 series of papers, is one authored by Dr. Erin Picou of Vanderbilt University. Unsurprisingly, her paper suggests a growing number of hearing aid owners report wireless capabilities in their hearing aids. This wireless, Bluetooth-enabled technology enables wearers to improve the sound quality of cell phones and lower the signal-to-noise ratio of many listening situations through the use of a remote microphone or TV streamer, directly connecting to their hearing aids and accessed through a smartphone app. According to the MarkeTrak 10 survey, 54% of wearers report their hearing aids have this wireless capability, a nine-point increase from the MarkeTrak 9 survey. Interestingly, the survey found that one in five current hearing aid owners did not know if they had wireless technology in their hearing aids.

Audiologists know quite well that wireless, Bluetooth-enabled technology is highly effective, particularly for improving speech intelligibility in noisy listening places or on the phone. The MarkeTrak 10 survey findings, however, indicate that just because hearing aid owners report they have wireless capability, it does not mean they use it.

In addition to the 20% of owners who do not know if they have wireless capability, Picou also reports that many of the key features, that accompany wireless technology on-board a hearing aid, are simply not used. Picou found 68% of hearing aid owners reported they did not have a downloadable smartphone app compatible with their hearing aids, 79% reported they did not have a TV streamer, and 80% reported they did not have a companion microphone. I think we can agree, based on these survey results, wireless capability in a hearing aid is woefully under-utilized – even though many hearing aid owners report they have it.

The good news here is that a small number of patients, who have taken the time to learn how to use these wireless features are helped by them – a lot. The survey determined that the 15% to 20% of owners who possess these wireless features use them every day and find them to be highly beneficial.

These results remind us that no matter how cool or how effective AI-based or Bluetooth-enabled technology becomes, it is the relationship between the person with hearing loss and the audiologist that drives much of the outcome. Indeed, a compassionate provider, willing to take the time to teach and empower the hearing aid owner to use wireless technology, is just one example that demonstrates audiologists cannot be replaced by automated processes or computer algorithms.