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Hearing impaired get boost at Hopkins clinic

Hearing aids have improved the quality of many people's lives, but most users have learned they are less than ideal in noisy environments.

Going to the airport, store or doctor's office can be frustrating, said Dr. Frank R. Lin, a Johns Hopkins Hospital otologist and epidemiologist. For the hospital clinic, the Listening Center, he sought a special system that can cut out audio clutter and transmit a speaker's voice directly to a person's hearing aid or cochlear implant.

In addition to helping the estimated 5,000 patients who pass through the clinic each year, he's hoping to spark interest from other hospitals and public facilities in such a system, called a hearing loop, for their buildings.

"Hearing aids are great one-on-on in a quiet room," he said. "But once there's overhead noise it's a problem. Church is a good example. People don't go because they can't hear anymore. But with a loop the difference is dramatic."

One recent day, patient Pam McKee got a demonstration. She approached the check-in desk at the Hopkins clinic. The exchange normally is a chore that her husband helps her with. But this day she heard every word.

Hopkins placed the system at the Listening Center's eight check-in stations and also in the waiting area so patients can hear their numbers called over the public loudspeakers or tune into the televisions.

The 59-year-old Baltimore woman's cochlear implant was installed just over a year ago and she said it's been helpful but not all the time. She'd lost hearing in her left ear as a child after a case of the mumps. She lost much of her hearing in her right ear after suffering from the H1N1 flu and other medical problems.

"I can hardly believe how well I can hear," she said of the loop system. "The airport, the bank, it can be really difficult to hear clearly. … Now that I know about the loops I'm surprised they haven't been installed more places."

McKee's husband, a church pastor, is looking into an installation to help her and others in the congregation with hearing aids and implants.

The technology is decades old but rarely used. To function, a copper wire is installed around the room and hooked into any existing speaker and television sound systems.

Also called induction loops, the systems pick up audio frequencies with microphones and transmit them wirelessly to any listening device equipped with its own copper telecoil wire. Like the bulk of hearing aids and cochlear implants, McKee's implant has a telecoil.

Hopkins wired its waiting area and check-in stations for $10,000.

Sue Tanea, a sales manager at Hearing Technologies LLC, said the Hopkins loop is the only permanent one she's installed in Baltimore. She did note a temporary loop installed in March at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which inspired Lin to seek out a system at Hopkins.

That temporary installation was in collaboration with the advocacy group Hearing Loss Association of America, which has begun a more extensive lobbying campaign for the loops.

Washington, New York and Michigan have more extensive systems, in airports, subways, churches and other public venues, said Tanea and Lin. The doctor believes in each case, a few vocal advocates pushed public officials to install the systems.

Locally, they knew of no other loops. But the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation recently announced that it had installed a new system in its main gathering areas after a congregant who also is an audiologist spearheaded the project. The facility had installed a loop system 25 years ago that had fallen into disrepair. Those without telecoils in their devices also can borrow portable receivers.

Lin and McKee believe the systems will make people with hearing loss more independent.

Nearly 6.7 million Americans age 50 and older have some hearing loss, according to Lin's past research. Only a small percentage use hearing aids because their insurance doesn't cover them, he said, or they don't think they need them or perceive that they do not work well.

That may be something the loops could help with, he said. And that could be important because other research by Lin shows a connection between hearing loss and risk of isolation and physical and mental debilitation.

Hearing loss statistics

1 out of 5 people who need a hearing aid wears one.

Roughly 41,500 adults and 25,500 children in the U.S. have received cochlear implants.

Approximately 26 million Americans between ages 20 and 69 have high-frequency hearing loss due to loud sounds or noise at work or in leisure activities.

Source: National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders

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