Continuing our manufacturer insight series into the future of hearing technology, BIHIMA interviewed Lise Henningsen, Senior Director, Global Audiology and Concept Development at Widex, who believes that future designs will offer a wide range of biometric monitoring and that this will lead to audiologists working much more closely with other healthcare professionals.
What are the priorities in the future of hearing technology?
My background is as an audiologist by profession, so for me, the focus must be on those suffering from hearing loss as well as the profession of audiology that serves them – the audiologists are our primary customers, and through them we reach consumers.
One of the most important things we must hold on to is that the rehabilitation of hearing loss can never be a commodity that we can fix in the spur of the moment. It is more than just the diagnostics of hearing loss, it is about understanding the lifestyle and aspirations of each individual person. Our work cannot be just in the lab, we can easily prove that our products work in a controlled environment. What is more challenging is to create products which really make a difference in life, in people’s different environments.
In the past you wore a device and turned it on using the volume control – this is a very poor adaptation method. But now we are moving towards being able to predict people’s intent, emotion and context, based on intelligent processing, in a completely new way. Where we were once only based in the clinical setting, we are now becoming much broader and we can consider the situations wearers want to hear in, and what the emotional loads are for each individual. We can then adapt the set-up of the device to suit the context. This is the area that I believe will augment and evolve in the profession of audiology.
So audiologists remain firmly at the centre?
Yes, absolutely. And as an industry we need to provide real insight into our audiologists’ customers – providing data, through AI and cloud solutions and so on, enabling them to better understand their specific client needs. Because insight is power, right? We as manufacturers need to understand that we are guardians of the profession and we must keep standards high and take our responsibility seriously to look after the aging population and to understand the many cognitive challenges of age which one day we will all experience.
We need audiology professionals who are able to integrate their knowledge of these challenges with the technology. But if we become manufacturers of simply fast moving consumer goods off the shelf, then all of these standards will drop.
You don’t see hearing technology being available over the counter then?
No, but the OTC is not something to fear – its introduction may actually help to tackle stigma and improve our value proposition. I believe we should embrace these developments and be thankful that they are changing perceptions, and continue to move the narrative to being more about the whole life, the live experience of users, and understanding their different situations.
How will these bespoke fully adaptable products be developed?
Many people already have hearing aids which are connected to their smart phone and the app, and connected to the cloud – so we already have an ecosystem of data flowing between each interface. In the future this will be developed even further through the use of intelligent sensors which connect to the user, monitoring blood pressure, brain activity, stress levels and so on. These sensors collect data about the listening intent of the user and this will eventually be fed back to the hearing aid. All these measures are a way of ascertaining how the wearer is feeling in the moment, what features are required and how the device can be tailored to suit the environment. This interaction will also be fed back to the professional to grow their understanding of the product in the field.
And what are the challenges to this progress?
The challenges are around how we break free of being just in a clinical domain to where we understand ourselves as helping people with a hearing disability. We need to change the view that hearing devices are devices which augment hearing rather than just fixing hearing loss. There will always be the clinical component because of hearing loss in children or through trauma and injury, but for everyone else we need a more positive message.
Other challenges are around keeping the device small, even as we add functionality. Also ensuring long enough battery life – especially if we are extending the value proposition of hearing aids so that they become a portal for health monitoring, such as blood pressure or blood sugar (for diabetes patients). If we do this the devices will need to be worn longer, even through the night, which is when most hearing aids are re-charged.
So you see the future of hearing technology interacting more with other types of healthcare?
Yes, there is the opportunity to become a complete healthcare business, combining with other medical practitioners in other specialities. We need to understand that the ear has a high real estate value – the ear canal is a very useful entry point, a portal that our industry essentially owns through our knowledge of it, and the fact that we can build very small products to suit it. We have the opportunity to be at the centre of healthcare, not something stigmatised on the periphery. When I speak to audiologists about this, their response is extremely positive when I suggest that they could be instrumental in the provision of healthcare data to other professionals to solve and treat other real life needs of people.
This interview was conducted by BIHIMA. We represent the hearing instrument manufacturers of Britain and Ireland, working in partnership with other professional, trade, regulatory and consumer organisations within the health care and charitable sectors. We raise consumer awareness about the latest hearing technology, and aim to influence government and policy makers to improve the lives of people with hearing difficulties.
Find out more about our members here.