Hearing Health in the Digital Age: What You Need to Know

Source: Fierce Healthcare

Digital health innovators are looking to provide more options for auditory care outside of the traditional care path of in-school tests and hearing aids. But as new audio tools abound, audiologists are defending old tools, saying nothing will replace hearing aids.

Tuned is a digital hearing health company helping patients access “holistic audio care.” The platform, available as an employer-sponsored benefit, connects patients with audiologists to help them access forms of audio care, old and new. Tuned recently completed a $3.5 million funding round led by Distributed Ventures that will be used to further stake the company’s claim in the future of audio health.

“The misconception about hearing is that it’s as if we’re destined to have severe hearing loss, that everybody needs to have hearing aids. That is completely untrue,” Danny Aronson, CEO and co-founder at Tuned, told Fierce Healthcare. “There’s prevention. There’s conservation. There’s a ton we can do with new products, new services, new apps.”

Aronson points out that as work stays hybrid, employees’ ears are taking a beating with few using optimal audio devices or settings. At the least, that’s where Tuned’s providers can help employees.

When first accessing the app, users go through a 10- to 15-minute screener before a 45-minute telehealth appointment with an audiologist. If hearing loss is not severe, providers can help program earbuds or order hearing-friendly devices from audio companies like Soundcore, a product covered by Tuned. For severe loss, patients can be directed to over-the-counter hearing aids.

Shawn Ellis, managing partner at Distributed Ventures, told Fierce Healthcare that the VC firm responded to Tuned’s investment in an unmet need. Ellis sees the potential for expanding telehealth usage to provide care areas out of the reach of audiologists.

“A lot of these brick-and-mortar clinic care providers need help accessing the demand that may exist among their patient base,” Ellis said. “A lot of Tuned audiologists have their own private practices seeing the more acute patients that need in-person, more pronounced care. But for the vast majority of the U.S. population, many of whom have not had a hearing exam since they were in a school context, there’s a great opportunity to provide access on a virtual basis.”

Tuned users can also be directed toward apps like Sonic Cloud or Audio Cardio. Sonic Cloud helps augment audio settings on devices to reflect which frequencies users most struggle with hearing. Audio Cardio plays inaudible frequencies to improve hearing through flexing listening capabilities. This area is one that Aronson sees people using more and more. “It’s literally an exploding category,” Aronson said.

An estimated 23% of Americans 12 and older have hearing loss. A recent study published in JAMA reasserted the long-held claim that unaddressed hearing loss is associated with a higher prevalence of dementia. However, hearing aids decrease that risk, although experts say that not all hearing aids are created equal and the technology still has a far way to go.

Audio Cardio is currently not FDA-approved to provide treatment for hearing loss. The question of whether new non-hearing aid technologies can help decrease the risk of dementia gives pause to Barbara Shinn-Cunningham, Ph.D., director of the Carnegie Mellon Neuroscience Institute and professor of auditory neuroscience.

“It’s not a yes or no answer. It may help some people,” she told Fierce Healthcare.

Shinn-Cunningham pointed to audio tools like LACE Auditory Training that train users in pairing sounds with English words that may help people practice differentiating high-frequency sounds like th- and f-. Tools like LACE, Shinn-Cunningham said, aren’t really training your ears but training listeners to focus on different parts of the sound or context clues.

AudioCardio, on the other hand, bills itself as an app for tinnitus and claims to strengthen the hearing of users experiencing sensorineural hearing loss by up to 10 decibels. Users can target certain frequencies to improve hearing. The standard treatment plan costs $10 to $15 monthly and involves daily hour-long “sound therapy” sessions. These sound therapy sessions are inaudible and therefore improve hearing while users go about their day.

“If you have mild hearing loss or good hearing, it’s not significant at all, because you don’t have the problem,” Audio Cardio CEO and co-founder Chris Ellis told Fierce Healthcare. “However, if you have moderate hearing loss, or severe hearing loss and you can make a 10-decibel change, that could be the difference of being able to communicate well in a restaurant or a social setting.”

The majority of the world’s hearing loss, 90%, is sensorineural and can be caused by age, noise or auto toxicity due to certain medications. As generations who grew up regularly attending rock concerts and using earbuds age, they’re looking for solutions to the nagging ear ringing that is tinnitus, a symptom of hearing loss.

“What we are saying is that this is a solution or a tool that you can try,” Ellis said. “We can’t say we can treat hearing loss, but we can help strengthen your hearing. I think it’s important for people to understand that. It’s not going to work for everyone, but it’s working for a good majority. Over 70% of the people who follow our protocol have a significant change in their hearing.”

Shinn-Cunningham follows this sentiment. The basic idea of amplifying sound through hearing aids is not going away, she said. Where technology can improve hearing and decrease the risk of dementia is in improving hearing aids.

While the devices have improved considerably in the last 15 years, they still fail in helping wearers easily differentiate sounds. In busy restaurants or dinner parties, they still fail. But Shinn-Cunningham says the next generation of hearing aids being developed can use machine learning to separate ambient sounds from voices.

In August of last year, the FDA created a new category of over-the-counter hearing aids that drastically decreased their price along with barriers to care. This change. along with younger generations having worse hearing than the ones that came before, makes Shinn-Cunningham believe stigmas against hearing aids will wane and more will take advantage of the improving technology.