UCSF Medical Center Offers World's First Disposable Hearing Aids

July 24, 2000
Contact: UCSF Audiology Clinic (415) 353-2101

The Audiology Clinic at UCSF Medical Center is making available to its patients the world's first disposable hearing aids - devices that cost about a dollar a day and work for up to 40 days.

UCSF's Audiology Clinic is the only one in the Bay Area with access to these devices, but they are scheduled to be available to the general public later this fall. Manufactured by Songbird Hearing Inc., a new company based near Princeton, N.J., the hearing aid is designed for people with mild to moderate hearing loss.

Robert Sweetow, director of the UCSF Audiology Clinic, said these devices fit entirely into the ear canal. Though billed as "one size fits all," the disposable hearing aids actually fit about 80 percent to 90 percent of adult male ears and about 70 percent to 80 percent of adult female ears, he said. The devices have a very soft "mushroom" cap that fits about halfway into the ear canal, just reaching the bony part of the ear canal.

"This relatively deep placement accomplishes two goals: It produces a very good acoustic seal that minimizes feedback (whistling), and it helps to reduce the common complaint that the user's own voice sounds as if he or she is speaking in a barrel (occlusion effect)," Sweetow said.

The quality of the sound produced by these new hearing aids is quite good, but studies at UCSF and elsewhere are determining how they compare to that produced by above-average analog and top-of-the-line digital hearing aids.

"This device represents a nice breakthrough for the consumer," Sweetow said. "We know that these hearing aids sound good, but we are about to begin the process of conducting a multi-center study to compare the objective and subjective impressions of patients." Studies will involve patients satisfied with digital hearing aids who will try the disposable hearing aids for the next couple of months.

The disposable devices last from 30 to 40 days, or until the encapsulated battery expires. There are a couple of potential advantages to disposable hearing instruments, Sweetow said. First, because of their short life expectancy, mechanical and electrical breakdown or blockage with earwax is not as likely, and if it does occur, the device can either be returned to the audiologist for a full refund or thrown out and replaced. Second, as technology continues to improve at a rapid rate, the consumer doesn't have to invest in an obsolete instrument.

"It can be disheartening and financially troublesome to spend thousands of dollars on new hearing aids only to discover that six months later, a better instrument has become available. Also, there are no additional costs for battery replacements, repair and maintenance or insurance," Sweetow said.

The downside, he said, is that "these instruments are not custom fit, so the physical fit may not be suitable for some ears. Furthermore, the flexibility of the acoustic programming is not nearly as great as that attained by programmable and digital devices."

Currently, the disposable aids have six possible "prescriptions" that an audiologist can set according to a patient's hearing loss. For the best benefit, hearing aids should be used with other skills such as lip reading, observing facial expressions and body language and managing the acoustic environment. 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.

The disposable hearing aids will be sold for about $40 each, which equates to about a dollar a day based on their expected life span. First-rate digital hearing aids cost more than $2,000 per aid, and have a life expectancy of three to five years. In comparison, the consumer may save more than a $100 per year with the disposable aids. Sweetow cautioned, however, that if these instruments aren't more effective than more expensive models, the sacrifice in quality to save a few hundred dollars is not worth it.

Currently, only about 20 percent of adults with hearing loss wear hearing aids. The reasons for shunning the aids include personal vanity, the stigma associated with the devices, their cost and the fact that hearing aids are imperfect devices. Statistics show that the average adult waits seven years before seeing a doctor about hearing loss, Sweetow said.

The Audiology Clinic serves about 10,000 patients a year. The US Bureau of Census estimates that 48 million hearing impaired persons over age 65 accounted for 43 percent of the senior population in 1980. That population is expected to climb to 46 percent in 2000 and 54 percent in 2020.

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