Wired for Sound with Hearing Loops
Date: December 12, 2012
For patients with mild to moderate hearing loss, hearing aids work pretty well to improve communication—especially if you’re in a quiet room and the person you’re speaking with is close by, says otologist and epidemiologist Frank Lin. However, he adds, the usefulness of hearing aids can quickly fall apart in a situation as simple as checking in to a doctor’s appointment. Just giving your name to the receptionist or waiting for your name to be called can be frustrating situations at best, and deterrents to seeing a physician at worst.
“As soon as you’re in a challenging environment where you’re trying to decipher a signal embedded in noise,” he says, “a hearing aid doesn’t work very well. It can be very stressful for our patients.”
For patients at Johns Hopkins Department of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, checking in and out of appointments will soon be much easier with the aid of a decades-old technology known as hearing loops. Lin is leading the charge to install the loops throughout the department.
Lin explains that about two-thirds of hearing aids and cochlear implants have an implement called a telecoil, a circuit designed to pick up a magnetic signal. Telecoils were originally installed so that hearing aid wearers could hear callers on a telephone more easily. By flipping a switch on a hearing aid to the telecoil setting, sound waves from the phone handset are converted to electromagmetic waves, allowing them to go straight to the hearing aid instead of being transmitted through the air. The result is a clearer sound without background sound or feedback—a more defined signal in the midst of noise.
Telecoils are useful beyond just chatting on the phone, Lin adds. Installing a “hearing loop” wire that transmits electromagnetic waves—around the perimeter of a room, for example—and a microphone at the source of a key sound allows hearing aid and cochlear implant wearers to take advantage of this technology in a variety of settings. For example, some fast-food restaurants have installed these wires to help patrons order more easily at the counter. Cabs and the subway system in New York City have installed them to assist travelers in getting to their destinations. And most recently, Lin says, Johns Hopkins has installed hearing loops in check-in and check-out counters and waiting rooms in the Department of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery.
These key locations, Lin says, will make hospital visits substantially easier for patients who use hearing aids or cochlear implants. When they see placards with an icon showing the technology is in place—an ear with a white bar diagonally passing through it—patients can turn their device to the telecoil setting. That way, they can communicate directly with receptionists and desk clerks, where discreet microphones located on the counter transmit sounds to the hearing loop wires.
Eventually, Lin says, he and his colleagues would like to use the department’s hearing loops as a model for the rest of the hospital, with every counter and waiting room also wired.
“Eventually, our hearing loss patients’ visits here will be just as easy as those of our hearing patients,” Lin says. “It’s going to be a big game changer in many ways.”