Innovation for Accessibility – Not Innovation’s Sake

Hearing loss is often associated with the elderly. Upon mention of hearing aids, many conjure images of their grandparent or a senior citizen fumbling with a bulky, flesh-colored medical device. While this is the stereotype, the reality is that people of all ages and backgrounds can be affected by hearing loss in varying degrees.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies hearing loss as the third most common chronic physical condition in the United States — more prevalent than both diabetes or cancer. Hearing loss affects more than 500 million people worldwide as well who experience it in some degree, and the World Health Organization estimates that 360 million people — 5 percent of the global population — have hearing loss classified as disabling.

The inability to hear can not only be frustrating, it can also cause individuals to feel alienated from their community, friends, and even their family. Untreated hearing loss has also been found to contribute to social isolation, depression, and even lower household incomes.

Much like hearing loss, misconceptions around hearing health technology also abound. While many still associate hearing health with bulky or unattractive devices, the truth is that there are many sleek and modern solutions that leverage the latest technologies to bring people with hearing loss unprecedented sound quality and control over their ability to hear.

With a seemingly endless chain of devices being launched every day, it is important that we recognize those that provide a true benefit through innovation. The hearing health industry is a great example for how technology and innovation can be leveraged to deliver improved accessibility for people who need it.

I had the great pleasure of demonstrating my company’s “smart” hearing aids at the inaugural FCC Innovations Expo in Washington D.C., on Oct. 23. In its first year, the expo provided an opportunity for the Federal Communications Commission to highlight technological progress that specifically advances accessibility and strives to showcase how the connected health revolution can benefit everyone.

As an audiologist, I know how important it is for hearing aid users to have access to the most advanced sound processing technology. Luckily, the hearing health industry is constantly developing new devices that fit comfortably, offer advanced streaming capabilities similar to a Bluetooth headset, and allow users to control their settings through an app, all while providing exceptional sound quality.

One of our industry’s newest devices even allows users to request and download adjustments to their hearing aids from the comfort of their home through their mobile device. This was developed in response to shifting consumer desire to be more involved in their health care, and reflects a push toward making people’s lives more convenient, especially if they have limited mobility, live a distance from their hearing care provider, or have trouble making appointments.

Although these technologies are available to help people manage their hearing loss, too many still leave it undiagnosed or untreated. Unfortunately, maintaining good hearing health is not something that most people spend much time thinking about. We understand the importance of visiting a dentist regularly and having our yearly checkup, but few take specific steps to preserve and protect their hearing. While the Hearing Health Foundation has stressed the importance of early detection, and encourages people of all ages not to neglect their hearing health many are still hesitant to pursue the help they need.

Encouraging the use and development of innovations that promote accessibility can help bridge the latent perception gap and compel people to take steps to address their needs. While I wouldn’t expect the public to regard a breakthrough hearing aid with the same excitement as the latest iPhone, celebrating certain advancements would achieve a two-fold goal: challenging misconceptions about the design and capabilities of modern hearing aids and encouraging individuals with hearing loss to take necessary steps to address their needs.

We audiologists want all our patients to live the fullest lives possible, and promoting innovations that improve accessibility will help achieve that mission. I commend the FCC for celebrating the latest advancements in accessibility, and encourage other people and organizations to follow suit.


Dr. Dave Fabry is the vice president of Global Medical Affairs for GN Hearing.

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