Dec 2020 Healthy Hearing by Madeleine Burry

Doorbells, washing machines, refrigerators, and sound systems have smartphone apps these days. So it should come as no surprise that many hearing aids also have apps associated with them. 

whisperMost hearing aids come with smartphone apps to give users more control over their devices

“Apps are how we live our lives now,” says Shannon Basham, AuD, senior director of audiology and education at Phonak, which makes hearing aid solutions, including a hearing aid app.  Apps can make something strange and new—wearing hearing aids—feel familiar, she says. They offer a wide range of useful features, and perhaps most importantly, hearing aid apps help people who wear the devices to personalise their experience, which can be deeply empowering, Basham says.  “Every single person who needs a hearing aid, their hearing loss and their communication needs are so individualized,” Basham says. Apps allow people to tailor their listening experience, instead of trying to fit into a cookie-cutter situation, she says. 

There are a number of hearing-related apps available for smartphones, such as decibel-measuring apps that tell you how loud it is around you. Other apps can perform a basic screening test to measure your hearing, and some let you "train" your brain with hearing exercises.  But for people who wear hearing aids—or who are considering getting fitted for hearing aids—the most relevant category is apps that are made by hearing aid manufacturers.  Through Bluetooth, these apps connect with the hearing aids a person is wearing, and are available on both Apple and Android phones.

Different apps offer different features, of course. But some of the features you can expect to see on many hearing aid apps include the following: 

You can adjust the hearing aid: “Hearing aids are remarkable in that they can read the soundscenes and automatically adjust to the noise levels in the room,” Basham says. But if you want the flexibility to adjust the volume, treble, bass, and so on even further, apps allow you to do so through your smartphone—which can be incredibly discrete—rather than reaching up to your ear to manually push buttons. Doing this, Basham says, is analogous to adjusting your stereo settings. 

Oticon ONThe homescreen for the Oticon ON app that can be used with Oticon hearing aids

You can create and save personalised hearing programs: For instance, if you often find hearing in a particular cafe particularly challenging, you can adjust the levels to suit your hearing, and then save it so that you can use it again the next time you’re in that environment. Some hearing aids may come with baked-in programs from your hearing care provider, as well as ones designed to mask tinnitus. 

You can check the device’s status: Apps often allow you to check on the battery life of your hearing aids—that way, you’ll know when they need to be recharged or replaced. Many apps also offer a “find my hearing aid” type feature to locate the device. Apps often provide statistics—so you can see, for instance, how many hours you’ve had the hearing aids on per day/week/month. 

Your hearing aids can connect directly to audio: With apps, you can connect directly to audio sources, so you can stream music and TV, along with phone calls, straight to your hearing aids.

You can connect to the Internet of Things: So many daily tasks travel together. For instance, in the morning, people turn on their hearing aids, make coffee, take a shower. At night, they turn off hearing aids, turn off lights, set the alarm. You can use smart technology and IFTTT ("if this, then that") services to trigger certain events to occur when you turn your hearing aids on and off. 

You can review instructions and the manual: If you’re new to your hearing aids, the apps can help steer you through basic functionality—handy if you happen to need to look up how to change the batteries when you’re far from home. 

You can keep a hearing journal: During check-ins, your audiologist will ask you to share about times when your hearing aid didn’t help you to your satisfaction. But remembering—and describing—these moments can be tricky. Some apps offer the ability to keep notes, so you can pinpoint the situations where you weren’t able to hear. “These apps allow us to get a snapshot in time of the user experience,” Basham says. This information, in turn, can be passed along to the hearing aid professional—so that instead of verbally describing the sounds of the restaurant, the audiologist can more fully understand the soundscape. 

You can communicate with your audiologist or hearing care professional: Through the app, your hearing care provider can do a hearing test, adjust hearing aids, fit the hearing aid, and so much more, says Basham. “It’s really phenomenal during this period where people can’t be physically present for appointments,” she says. 

And there’s so much more that will come in future upgrades of apps. Just as hearing aids have made leaps forward in functionality, so too will the apps. “With regard to hearing aid tech we’re just scratching the surface of what is possible,” Basham says

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