Convery, E., & Keidser, G. (2011). Transitioning hearing aid users with severe and profound loss to a new gain/frequency response: benefit, perception and acceptance. Journal of the American Academy of Audiology. 22, 168-180.
This editorial discusses the clinical implications of an independent research study. The original work was not associated with Starkey Hearing Technologies. This editorial does not represent the opinions of the original authors.
Many individuals with severe-to-profound hearing loss are full-time, long-term hearing aid users. Because they rely heavily on their hearing aids for everyday communication, they are often reluctant to try new technology. It is common to see patients with severe hearing loss keep a set of hearing aids longer than those with mild-to-moderate losses. These older hearing aids offered less effective feedback suppression and a narrower frequency range than those available today now. The result was that many severely-impaired hearing aid users were fitted with inadequate high-frequency gain and compensatory increases in low-mid frequency amplification. Having adapted to this frequency response, they may reject new hearing aids with increased high-frequency gain, stating that they sound too tinny or unnatural. Similarly, those who have adjusted to linear amplification may reject wide-dynamic-range compression (WDRC) as too soft, even though it the strategy may provide some benefits when compared to their linear hearing aids.
Convery and Keidser evaluated a method to gradually transition experienced, severely impaired hearing aid users into new amplification characteristics. They measured subjective and objective outcomes as subjects took incremental steps toward a more appropriate frequency response. Twenty-three experienced, adult hearing aid users participated in the study. Participation was limited to subjects whose current gain and frequency response differed significantly from targets based on NAL-RP, a modification of the NAL formula for severe to profound hearing losses (Byrne, et al 1991). Most subjects’ own instruments had more gain at 250-2000Hz and less gain at 6-8 kHz compared to NAL-RP targets, so the experimental transition involved adapting to less low and mid-frequency gain and more high frequency gain.
Subjects in the experimental group were fitted bilaterally with WDRC behind-the-ear hearing instruments. Directional microphones, noise reduction and automatic features were turned off and volume controls were activated with an 8dB range. The hearing aids had two programs: the first, called the “mimic” program, had a gain/frequency response adjusted to match the subject’s current hearing aids. The second program was set to NAL-RP targets. MPO was the same for mimic and NAL-RP programs. The programs were not manually accessible for the user, they were only adjusted by the experimenters at test sessions.
Four incremental programs were created for each participant in the experimental group. Each step was approximately a 25% progression from their mimic program frequency response to the NAL-RP prescribed response. At 3 week intervals, they were switched to the next incremental program, approaching NAL-RP settings as the experiment progressed. The programs in the control group’s hearing aids remained consistent for the duration of the study.
All subjects attended 8 sessions. At the initial session, subjects’ own instruments were measured in a 2cc coupler and RECD measurements were obtained with their own earmolds. The experimental hearing aids were fitted at the next session and subjects returned for follow-up sessions at 1 week post-fitting and 3 week intervals thereafter until 15-weeks post-fitting.
Subjects evaluated the mimic and NAL-RP programs in paired comparisons at 1 week and 15 weeks post-fitting. The task used live dialogues with female talkers in four everyday environments: café, office, reverberant stairwell and outdoors with traffic noise in the background. Hearing aid settings were switched from mimic to NAL-RP with a remote control, without audible program change beeps, so subjects were unaware of their current program. They were asked to indicate their preference for one program over the other on a 4-point scale: no difference, slightly better, moderately better or much better.
Speech discrimination was evaluated with the Beautifully Efficient Speech Test (BEST; Schmitt, 2004) which measured the aided SRT for sentence stimuli. Loudness scaling was then conducted to determine the most comfortable loudness level and range (MCL/R). Finally, subjects responded to a questionnaire concerning overall loudness comfort, speech intelligibility, sound quality, use of the volume control, use of their own hearing aids and perceived changes in audibility and comfort. Speech discrimination, loudness scaling and questionnaire administration took place for all participants at 3 week intervals, starting at the 3 week post-fitting session.
One goal of the study was to determine if there would be a change in speech discrimination over time or a difference between the experimental and control groups. Analysis of BEST SRT scores yielded no significant difference between the experimental and control groups, nor was there a significant change in SRT over time. There was a significant interaction between these variables, indicating that the experimental group demonstrated slightly poorer SRT scores over time, whereas the control group’s SRTs improved slightly over time.
Subjects rated perceptual disturbance, or how much the hearing aid settings in the current test period differed from the previous period and how disturbing the difference was. There was no significant effect for the experimental or control groups, but there was a tendency for reports of perceptual disturbance over time to decrease for the control group and increase for the experimental group. The mimic programs for the control group were consistent, so control subjects likely became acclimated over time. The experimental group, however, had incremental changes to their mimic program at each session, so it is not surprising that they reported more perceptual disturbance. This was only a slight trend, however, indicating that even the experimental group experienced relatively little disturbance as their hearing aids approached NAL-RP targets.
Analysis of the paired comparison responses indicated a significant overall preference for the mimic program over the NAL-RP program. There was an interaction between environment and listening program, showing a strong preference for the mimic program in office and outdoor environments and somewhat less of a preference in the café and stairwell environments. When asked about their criteria for the comparisons, subjects most commonly cited speech clarity, loudness comfort and naturalness, regardless of whether mimic fit or NAL-RP was preferred. There was no significant effect of time on program preference, but there was a slight increase in the control group’s preference for mimic at the end of the study, whereas the experimental group shifted slightly toward NAL-RP, away from mimic.
Over the course of the study, Convery and Keidser’s subjects demonstrated acceptance of new frequency responses with less low- to mid-frequency gain and more high frequency gain than their current hearing aids. No significant differences were noted between experimental and control groups for loudness, sound quality, voice quality, intelligibility or overall performance, nor did these variables change significantly over time. Though all subjects preferred the mimic program overall, there was a trend for the experimental group to shift slightly toward a preference for the NAL-RP settings, whereas the control group did not. This indicates that the experimental subjects had begun to acclimate to the new, more appropriate frequency response. Acclimatization might have continued to progress, had the study examined performance over a longer period of time. Prior research indicates that acclimatization to new hearing aids can progress over the course of several months and individuals with moderate and severe losses may require more time to adjust than individuals with milder losses (Keidser et al, 2008).
Reports of perceptual disturbance increased as incremental programs approached NAL-RP settings. This may not be surprising to clinicians, as hearing aid patients often require a period of acclimatization even after relatively minor changes to their hearing aid settings. Furthermore, clinical observation supports the suggestion that individuals with severe hearing loss may be even more sensitive to small changes in their frequency response. Allowing more than three weeks between program changes may result in less perceptual disturbance and easier transition to the new frequency response. Clinically, perceptual disturbance with a new frequency response can also be mitigated by counseling and encouraging patients that they will feel more comfortable with the new hearing aids as they progress through their trial periods. It might also be helpful to extend the trial period (which is usually 30-45 days) for individuals with severe to profound hearing losses, to accommodate an extended acclimatization period.
Individuals with severe-to-profound hearing loss often hesitate to try new hearing aids. Similarly, audiologists may be reluctant to recommend new instruments with WDRC or advanced features for fear that they will be summarily rejected. Convery and Keidser’s results support a process for transitioning experienced hearing aid users into new technology and suggest an alternative for clinicians who might otherwise hesitate to attempt departures from a patient’s current frequency response.
Because this was a double-blind study, the research audiologists were unable to counsel subjects as they would in a typical clinical situation. The authors note that counseling during transition is of particular importance for severely impaired hearing aid users, to ensure realistic expectations and acceptance of the new technology. Though the initial fitting may approximate the client’s old frequency response, follow-up visits at regular intervals should slowly implement a more desirable frequency response. Periodically, speech discrimination and subjective responses should be evaluated and the transition should be stopped or slowed if decreases in intelligibility or perceptual disturbances are noted.
In addition to changes in the frequency response, switching to new hearing aid technology usually means the availability of unfamiliar features such as directional microphones, noise reduction and many wireless features. Special features such as these can be introduced after the client acclimates to the new frequency response, or they can be relegated to alternate programs to be used on an experimental basis by the client. For instance, automatic directional microphones are sometimes not well-received by individuals who have years of experience with omnidirectional hearing aids. By offering directionality in an alternate program, the individual can test it out as needed and may be less likely to reject the feature or the hearing aids. It is critical to discuss proper use of the programs and to set up realistic expectations. Because variable factors such as frequency resolution and sensitivity to incremental amplification changes may affect performance and acceptance, the transition period should be tailored to the needs of the individual and monitored closely with regular follow-up appointments.
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