Cochlear Implants: “We emphasize on ease of use and ergonomics in everyday life”

On September 20th it was announced that dr. Ingeborg Hochmair, CEO and founder of MED-EL, won the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award. She won it together with Graeme Clark (University of Melbourne) and Blake Wilson (Duke University, North Carolina) for the development of cochlear implants. In Nieuwegein, the Netherlands, Audiology Infos was able to speak to the awardee. She was there to open the first MED-EL Care Center in the Netherlands. However unlikely this may seen at first, the two occasions are clearly connected, Hochmair indicates. Where the Award is a recognition for past achievements and helps awareness, the MED-EL Care Centers are key to individalization, vital to client satisfaction and furhter spread of the technology.

“The award came as quite a surprise”, Hochmair opens. “It is very nice that the long and hard, basic scientific work of my colleagues and me, stemming from three continents, was recognized.” Most importantly, says Hochmair, the Award raises awareness. “Furthermore, this recognition strengthens the trust of candidates in the technology they are considering. In the developed world, CI technology is matured and has become accepted. Now we are looking to access developing countries. The Award is an opportunity to make progress with that. There is lots of ground still to be won.”

The global penetration of CI lies at seven per million, with a spread from zero in for instance sub-sahara Africa to forty-five in Europe and Australia. Hochmair: “Hearing is connected to the human right of education. This makes it a priority that the people who need it, get a hearing aid or CI. We still have to grow a factor five to get to our goals for Vision 2020. If we would be able to help ten to fifteen people per million with CI's, this would enable it to make at least the deaf born children hear. But you have to act early on; after the age of five this opportunity gets lost for good. Lots of progress has been made, but we still need money, infrastructure, training, awareness and networking.”

Spread information

The very name 'cochlear implant' doesn't help. Most people know what a hearing aid is, at least. “I ask every taxi driver I meet: what is a cochlear implant?”, Hochmair reveals. “The average answer has improved over the years, but whe are still not there. And apart from knowing, there's also how people feel about it. In that respect, hearing aids already went through the positive change CI's also deserve. Over the last fifteen years, the technology has become perfectly fitted for widespread use.” The task ahead is clear to her: “In the years to come, some technical optimization will take place. Apart from that, implants will become available for different indications, such as Single Sided Deafness. Our care centers are meant to spread information on different products for different indications, so that clients can be guided to the best fitting solution in a comfortable setting. We emphasize on ease of use and ergonomics in everyday life. Consultation, support, service, repairs and assistive listening devices all fit into that picture, with an important role for the Care Centers. The centers hold stock in all necessary spare parts. Some would consider these minor developments, but they are not! They are very important for the further spread of the technology of hearing implants and also for further individualization. These are vital to effectiveness and satisfaction.”

Success factor

Internally, surgeons can choose from a range of different electrode arrays for their patients. There are now also different options for external devices, such as the RONDO soundprocessor, which is disconnected from the ear, concealed under the hear and enabling wearing glasses. “The MED-EL Care Center offers the opportunity to consider all options at ease, supported by professionals and possibly also experienced users, to achieve the best total solution. We witness an increasing need for this kind of support, in the clinic as well as with the user”, Hochmair adds. “It is the place where the necessary elaborate aftercare can take place. This doesn't need to be done in a clinical setting. The important decision on implants takes time. In the MED-EL Care Center, the customer gets that. It is a place to overcome fear an go for it. We are convinced that this support eventually increases the success of the device. Therefore we consider opening care centers also in other countries.”

Leendert van der Ent, editor in chief of Audiology Infos North of Europe