Several years ago Paul Getsy woke up and went to work like any other normal day. He put on a headset and thought the right ear had stopped working, only to discover it was actually his ear that wasn't working. Getsy suffered what's called sudden sensorineural hearing loss. That's a fast, frequently one-sided and often uncorrectable hearing loss that occurs when there is damage to the inner ear. A steroid treatment didn't work, and traditional hearing aids don't do much for people with this type of hearing loss.
"With a traditional hearing aid, the only way I can describe is like Charlie Brown's teacher," said Getsy. "No matter how much louder you make it, it doesn't really matter because you have no idea what she's saying."
Until now, options for people with conductive hearing loss were few, and surgical in nature. Now, Allegheny General Hospital is introducing SoundBite. It has an ear piece that fits over the ear like a traditional hearing aid.
"It is not a true hearing aid in that it's not taking sound and making it louder in that ear; it's actually taking sound and turning it into a wireless signal that communicates with a second component that fits on the teeth," said Dr. Todd Hillman, a neuro-otologist at Allegheny General's Center for Hearing and Balance.
SoundBite only works for patients with this specific type of hearing loss, which Hillman said is about 1% of all hearing loss patients.
"Hearing loss is extremely common though, so there are thousands and thousands of patients just like Paul out there, and that's why this device is such an important device. The incidents of hearing loss in this country is over 10%, so you're talking about over 30 million people with hearing loss, so 1% of that is still a big number," said Hillman.
As for its effectiveness and comfort level, Hillman likens it to a retainer, since the mouth piece is custom fitted for each patient. Getsy got his SoundBite in December and said it took a few days to get used to it, but now he only takes it out to sleep.
"I found it immediately to be life-impacting," he said, "I had no idea how much time and effort I was spending throughout the day to compensate for my loss."
Only three patients in the Pittsburgh region are currently using the device, and there are test sites in other states including Ohio, Michigan, California, and Texas. The $6,800 dollar device has received FDA approval, but since it's new, is not covered by most insurance plans.