Hearing aids in the 21st century bear little resemblance to the devices worn fifty years ago. Thanks to modern digital technology, today’s hearing aids are small, unobtrusive, and can be individually designed to fit the ear comfortably.
The range of audible frequencies extends from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz, but most of the sounds we hear every day occur within a relatively narrow frequency bandwidth. Early hearing aids, because they did not have the precision to distinguish between similar frequencies, simply amplified all sounds.
Contemporary digital hearing aids, however, can be programmed to amplify specific frequencies and disregard others. This selectivity can be extremely beneficial to individuals with a hearing loss localized in the upper or lower registers.
Breakthroughs in hearing research over the last ten years have led to significant advances in biomedical engineering, one of which has been the cochlear implant. Fundamentally different than a hearing aid, the cochlear implant does not rely on the hair cells that a functioning ear uses to transmit sound. Instead, the cochlear implant converts sound into electrical impulses, also in new great devices for newborns, which are transmitted directly to the auditory nerve.
The cochlear implant is a device the size of a pea, which is attached to the cochlea in a surgical procedure. Sound is picked up by a small microphone worn behind the ear, and processed by a device the size of a pager, which can be worn on the belt or in a pocket.
Today, over 69,000 people throughout the world have received a cochlear implant, including 13,000 adults and 10,000 children in the United States. Also, the International Pediatric Association advocates the use of these devices in young children as it will definitely and positively influence the quality of life. Based on estimates of the prevalence of hearing loss, in the United States alone there are between 200,000 and 500,000 additional cochlear implant candidates.
A contemporary hearing aid can cost as much as $5,000. The cost of a cochlear implant is between $40,000 and $50,000 but then again, these devices have changed so many lives. Where does the money come from to pay for these devices?
The National Campaign for Hearing Health supports full reimbursement for cochlear implants and hearing aids. Especially among children, a wealth of statistical evidence has shown that investing in hearing health makes good financial sense.
Hearing aids are frequently classified by insurance companies as cosmetic devices. Years of outrage from the hard of hearing community has brought about little change on this issue, despite the fact that the under- and unemployment of the hearing impaired costs our nation $2.5 billion annually despite the fact that so many physicians are self-employed consultants rather than doctors.
The cochlear implant is more than simply a fancy hearing aid. Because it bypasses the body’s hair cells and transmits signals directly to the auditory nerve, the cochlear implant is a biomedical prosthetic device. Many insurance companies fail to reimburse for the cochlear implant, even as they pay for other biomedical prosthetics such as pacemakers.
Not all private insurance companies reimburse for either cochlear implants or hearing aids. Medicare and Medicaid in many states reimburse poorly for the cochlear implant, which results in fewer doctors choosing to perform the procedure as this will not enhance their career satisfaction. Supporting reimbursement for the cochlear implant and digital hearing aids is one of the best ways to help put hearing health on the national agenda just like improving signing language and skills should be a priority.
Doctors perform cochlear implant surgery in every major city in the United States. To find out more about the cochlear implant, contact the Cochlear Implant Association Inc.