When most of us think of Bluetooth, we typically think of our mobile devices, and connecting peripheral devices like hands-free earpieces or car stereo systems. That’s only the beginning of Bluetooth’s capabilities, though. As the IoT continues to play a larger role in our lives, the technology is showing up everywhere from televisions to toys and appliances — and now, even personal medical devices.
That’s right: Bluetooth technology is quickly becoming a standard feature on a number of medical devices, including hearing aids. In the past, those using hearing aids often had to remove his or her hearing aids in order to use other audio devices, such as ear buds to listen to music. This was not only cumbersome, but also potentially disrupted the user’s ability to clearly hear everything coming through the ear buds. Now, thanks to Bluetooth technology, it’s possible for the hearing aid user to actually connect the aids to certain electronic devices and stream directly to the hearing aid. This development makes it possible to not only listen to music more clearly without removing one’s hearing aids, but can also be used with mobile phones, televisions, and other electronic devices.
Putting Bluetooth in Hearing Aids
At the risk of oversimplifying the technology, Bluetooth transfers data between two or more electronic devices using radio waves. These waves are set to a high frequency, which prevents interference and security risks. When it comes to adding Bluetooth to hearing aids, though, the technical needs of the technology require more power than the typical hearing aid can generate. Because of this, as of right now, the term Bluetooth hearing aids doesn’t mean that the device itself contains Bluetooth technology, but rather that they work with an assistive listening device. These devices, called streamers, create a communication link between the hearing aid and Bluetooth-enabled device, such as a mobile phone.
That being said, there are constantly new developments with streamers. For example, those who have Apple devices (including iPhone, iPad, and IPod Touch devices) can directly connect their hearing aids to their devices without the use of a streamer. This helps limit the drain on the hearing aid battery. Because as of now Apple is the only patent holder for this technology, only those who have Apple devices can use their hearing aids without a streamer. However, many hearing aid manufacturers have designed their devices to be compatible with those products.
The Benefits of Bluetooth in Hearing Aids
At this point, you might be wondering why you would even want Bluetooth in a hearing aid. There are actually several good reasons.
- Some models allow for remote control. Again, Apple is paving the way in this regard with the MFi program, which allows those who compatible hearing aids to adjust them using a Bluetooth connected Apple device. In other words, if you’re having trouble hearing your dining companion in a busy restaurant, but the music at the symphony is too loud, you can discreetly adjust your hearing aid’s volume using your phone rather than manually adjusting the volume by removing the aids.
- Hand-free calling is a possibility. Many hearing aid wearers report that it can be uncomfortable or even painful to use a phone when wearing a hearing aid. With Bluetooth, you can make hands-free calls and still hear the other person in both ears. Bluetooth also allows for more comfortable video calling.
- Improved sound quality. Because Bluetooth hearing aids deliver sound to both ears at once, it is clearer and better sounding than normal. In addition, Bluetooth can eliminate the “buzzing” that is common in many hearing aids when users use the phone.
In many ways, Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids hold a great deal of potential for the hearing impaired. However, there is some confusion about what “Bluetooth hearing aid” actually means, since most people think that it means that Bluetooth is built into the hearing aid itself. It’s important for audiologists and device manufacturers alike to make the distinction clear.
Cost is also a factor. For a device-controlled hearing aid that doesn’t require a streamer, the cost is nearly $3,000. For a more basic model that simply connects the hearing aid to your phone, the cost is a more modest $250 to $300.
Still, even with the cost of a Bluetooth-enabled device, there’s no denying that the technology is beneficial. As Bluetooth technology advances, don’t be surprised if truly Bluetooth-enabled devices are on the horizon.