It would be a great achievement if an implanted hearing aid could match a conventional one. The question would then become, At four times the cost, is it worth it? Neither a high-end conventional aid, at $5,000, nor the Carina, at $20,000, is covered by insurance. And of course, if the patient got two, the price would double. (Surgeons currently implant the aids in only one ear to minimize risk, but once the devices prove themselves, patients may opt for two.)
Otologics hoped that the military, at any rate, would think it worth the cost. Jim Easter, the company’s director of business development, explained to me that military jets are much louder than they used to be. Ear protection helps only a little; the whole skull vibrates. Pilots and ground crew are going deaf in alarming numbers.
A conventional aid, Easter said, might be okay for a desk jockey, but not for a pilot who has to wear headgear, execute high-G maneuvers, and possibly end up in the water. And not for a crew member who sweats like crazy on a hot flight deck. He thought the military would like a device that went inside the body and stayed there.
And what about me, with my decidedly one-G writer’s life? Could the technology be used in cochlear implants?
The main challenge, Conn said, would be to substitute an electrode array in the inner ear for the piston the Carina uses in the middle ear. It might be possible to create a detachable electrode that would stay in place when the unit needed to be replaced, but that would require maintaining a seal with as many as 30 separate connections. Still, Conn thought it could be done.
On the way home, I thought about the pros and cons of the Carina. Four times the price. Surgery–and not just once, but every five or 10 years. On the other hand, quite possibly better hearing. Being able to hear while swimming, sleeping, and showering. Having a body that looked normal–felt normal. If I were a hearing-aid user, would I do it?
I’d want to see good results over a longer period of time first: the complete FDA testing and findings. I’d want to see patients doing well with the device for a while after it hit the market. And I’d need to have a spare 20 grand lying around.
But given all that, the answer is yes, I probably would.
Michael Chorost is the author of Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human.