Robert Mandara: Programming your own hearing aids, part 1. Why you should do it!

Posted on March 28, 2013

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Last year, the BBC reported that more and more hearing aid users are programming their own hearing aids. Here, in the first part of a three-part series, Limping Chicken reader Robert Mandara explains why you should do it.

Would you buy a television if the salesman insisted that only he could set the channel, volume, tone, brightness and contrast? Would you be happy to make 3-hour round trips back to the showroom with the TV for adjustments? No? Then why do we surrender control in this way for hearing aids?

We are surrounded by gadgets, iThis and iThat, which we can configure to our heart’s content, yet hearing aid users have almost no control over the most vital item of technology in our lives.

In this article, I set out the reasons why users should be able to program hearing aids themselves. In the next two articles, I will explain what you need and give some tips for how you can do it.

I have programmed my hearing aids and wish that I had done it much sooner. Trust me, I’m a far happier, more social animal as a result.

Hearing aid programming consists of two distinct branches:

1. Acoustic programming: Settings which affect the sound – such as gain and frequency response. You could, if you’re crazy enough, potentially damage your hearing by making the wrong settings.

2. Operational programming: Settings which do not affect the sound. Compare these to selecting a ringtone or desktop wallpaper. Why shouldn’t users be able to set these themselves?

In no particular order, here’s why you might want to program your own hearing aids:

Economics. By avoiding making multiple visits to your audiologist, you (and also the health service or audiologist) can save time, money and frustration. Besides, if you have bought or begged spare hearing aids in the past, now you’ll only need one, which can be programmed for the left or right side as you need it.

Immediacy. Why tolerate bad sound while you wait to see the audiologist, when you could make the required changes right now?

Control. Answering the audiologist’s favourite question “How does that sound?” is like trying to paint the Mona Lisa with a broom. For a start, we simply don’t have the adequate vocabulary. You know what you’re hearing; the audiologist can only guess.

Curiosity. Wouldn’t it be easier to say how the sound could be adjusted if you knew the range of adjustments and settings that were possible? In fact you can explore the software without connecting it to your hearing aids. Users who have explored the software will be better able to explain their needs to the audiologist while using the right terminology. You might be amazed at how much information is stored in your hearing aids. Your name, sex, date of birth and audiogram are probably stored. If data logging is enabled, you (or your audiologist) can see how much time you spend using your heading aids and on which programs. Big brother is watching you. You may find features in the software that your audiologist is unaware of. I found sound clips, representing different situations (birds, parties, radio) which are useful for testing out changes. If the software has hearing test functionality, you can measure what you actually hear.

Master of one. Audiologists program many types of hearing aid, use many software applications, serve many patients and have limited time. I say that they’re jacks of all aids, masters of none. You, on the other hand, can focus on one hearing aid, one software application, one very special patient, and can invest as much time as you like. Be the master, not the slave.

Real world. Sounds in the audiologist’s room don’t represent the real world. Program for the real world where the dog’s barking, the kids are screaming and the kettle is boiling, not for the quietest little room you’ll ever encounter.

Try features before you commit to them. Modern hearing aids can do amazing things! At the more exotic end of the scale, they can talk to each other, switch between programs automatically and even lower the high frequencies so that you can hear them. Features usually have drawbacks as well as benefits. Wouldn’t you be happier to test them if you knew that you could turn them off as soon as you knew that they weren’t for you? If you make the wrong choice in the fitting room, it can take weeks to have features deactivated.

To accessorize. I bought Phonak’s iCom and iPilot accessories for my hearing aids. Audiologists are supposed to pair accessories to your hearing aids but it’s very easy to do it yourself.

For the best sound. Audiologists are under pressure to program quickly and, if the patient seems sort-of happy, that’s usually good enough. To be fair, audiologists are doing an impossible job. In the old analogue days, they just twiddled a couple of screws. Now the adjustment possibilities are infinite. Probably every hearing aid on the planet (including mine) isn’t optimally programmed. Why wear a hearing aid on sub-optimal settings? If you can extract the very best sound, you’ll hear more and inevitably be happier. Pimp your soundscape and unleash the hidden potential of your hearing aids!!

Because you want to. If you have ever wished to seize the controls, are computer literate, experimental, patient and have some understanding of sound, self-programming is quite probably for you. If, like me, you were being advised to have a cochlear implant, you can prove to yourself whether hearing aids really have nothing more to offer you. In my case, I found that I hadn’t reached the end of the road at all.

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