An iPhone app to help the hard of hearing


Mr. C. was described in the chart as being “unresponsive” by multiple providers.  Sure enough, when I spoke to him, he did not reply.  When I leaned in and shouted in his ear, laughter down the hall could be heard from the nurse’s station. But I didn’t care:  the “unresponsive” Mr. C was answering my questions.

That was a scene from my training a few years ago.  Unfortunately, hearing aids are still notoriously difficult to use, uncomfortable and expensive.  Amplification devices for the hard-of-hearing start at $20 from electronics suppliers.  However, for routine verbal communication, you are likely already carrying a cheap amplification device in your pocket — a smart phone.

A brief Google search for apps for the hard of hearing gave me a list of potentially useful devices.  I decided to check out SoundAmp:  99 cents on the iTunes store, because like most medical professionals, I carry an iPhone.  Earbuds didn’t work well, and can be difficult for the elderly, so  I bought a $3 headset online and presto, instant communication with my hard of hearing patients.

You can choose a near/far distance mode for conversations. It has a feature called Boost, which will increase high frequency amplification–key when talking to the elderly, who tend to lose the high frequency range.

The cheapie headsets don’t last long, unfortunately. I have found that the airline disposables work fine — my favorite so far is jetBlue.

For patients on contact precautions, a cheap set of headphones can be left in the patient’s room, just as we have dedicated stethoscopes and blood pressure cuffs.   You can place the smartphone in the middle of a table in order to pick up conversation from a group.  More sophisticated users can get a Bluetooth headset.

Overall, instead of paying $20 and up for an amplifier and one more device you have to carry, you can make your smartphone into a communication device for under $5.  Your patients will be grateful.

Earl Smith is a palliative care physician.

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