Paul Getsy, of Plum, one of the patients at Allegheny General Hospital using the SoundBite hearing system, listens Tuesday to Dr. Todd Hillman describe the unit, which uses bone conduction to transmit sound vibrations picked up by a small microphone placed in the ear.
Dr. Todd Hillman shows the positioning of the bone conduction unit which transmits sound vibrations collected by a microphone fitted to the ear during a press conference Tuesday at Allegheny General Hospital about the SoundBite hearing system.
Paul Getsy, of Plum, one of the patients at Allegheny General Hospital using the SoundBite hearing system, describes Tuesday the first sounds he heard after being fitted for the unit as Dr. Todd Hillman listens.
By Rob Wennemer Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Patients suffering from deafness in one ear can now avoid surgery and recapture much of their hearing with a new device being tested at Allegheny General Hospital.
The SoundBite, made by Sonitus Medical of San Mateo, Calif., uses the patient's teeth to transmit sound vibrations from the deaf ear to the one that has normal hearing, hospital officials said at a press conference Tuesday. The SoundBite has two components. One piece, which rests on the hearing-impaired ear, collects sound and wirelessly conveys it to the second piece, which fits over the patient's lower jaw.
Once it gets the wireless signals, the mouth device translates those sounds into vibrations that travel through the facial bones to the good ear's cochlea.
"It is not a true hearing aid, in that it is not taking sound and making it louder in [the deaf] ear," explained Todd Hillman, co-director of the Hearing and Balance Center at Allegheny General Hospital. "It is actually taking sound and turning it into a wireless signal that then communicates with the second component that fits on the teeth."
Paul Getsy, 48, of Plum, is one of three patients in Dr. Hillman's clinic who received the SoundBite technology since its release.
Mr. Getsy said he could tell the difference right away, especially since his prescribed steroids and traditional hearing aids had failed to correct his single-sided hearing loss.
"I found [SoundBite] immediately to be life-impacting," Mr. Getsy said. "I had no idea how much time and how much effort I was spending throughout the day to compensate for my loss."
Mr. Getsky did not have good "discrimination hearing," which Dr. Hillman described as "the ability to hear sounds clearly." SoundBite has improved his ability to understand those sounds by redirecting them to his good ear.
"Not even a traditional hearing aid would help," Dr. Hillman said, because "you have to bypass the hearing on that side, and this is one of the ways to do that."
While insurance companies do not cover the cost of the $6,800 SoundBite, some have reimbursed patients for their purchase of the device through a code that covers implantable hearing aids, Dr. Hillman said.
The unexplained loss, known as idiopathic sudden sensorineural hearing loss, is relatively common among those with hearing problems, including Mr. Getsy.
"I got up one morning and didn't even realize it," Mr. Getsy said, but "I couldn't hear on the right side anymore."
This condition forced Mr. Getsy to make several uncomfortable adaptations, including constantly straining his neck on one side to hear others speaking or arriving at meetings early in order to secure a seat that was close to the front.
The CROS (contralateral routing of signals) hearing aid, a competitor of SoundBite, includes a microphone in the hearing-impaired ear transmitting signals to a conventional hearing aid in the good ear, which Dr. Hillman said makes it more burdensome.
"The disadvantage there is that the patient needs to wear a hearing aid in their good-hearing ear, and that is always a compromise," Dr. Hillman said.
Just like a retainer or braces, it took time for Mr. Getsy to feel comfortable with the device in his mouth. "The first day it was a little bit of a challenge," he said, "but by the end of the first week I was pretty much wearing it all waking hours."
It was all worth it, however, when Mr. Getsy heard the first words come through his left ear with SoundBite, admitting that it "made the hair on my neck stand up."