Future technology in cochlear implants: assessing the benefit

  • Briggs R
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It has been over 50 years since Djourno and Eyries first attempted electric stimulation in a patient with deafness. Over this time, the Cochlear Implant (CI) has become not only remarkably successful, but increasingly complex. Although the basic components of the system still comprise an implanted receiver stimulator and electrode, externally worn speech processor, microphone, control system, and power source, there are now several alternative designs of these components with different attributes that can be variably combined to meet the needs of specific patient groups. Development by the manufacturers has been driven both by these various patient needs, and also by the desire to achieve technological superiority, or at least differentiation, ultimately in pursuit of market share. Assessment of benefit is the responsibility of clinicians. It is incumbent on both industry and clinicians to ensure appropriate, safe, and affordable introduction of new technology. For example, experience with the totally implanted cochlear implant (TIKI) has demonstrated that quality of hearing is the over-riding consideration for CI users. To date, improved hearing outcomes have been achieved by improvements in: speech processing strategies; microphone technology; pre-processing strategies; electrode placement; bilateral implantation; use of a hearing aid in the opposite ear (bimodal stimulation); and the combination of electric and acoustic stimulation in the same ear. The resulting expansion of CI candidacy, with more residual hearing, further improves the outcomes achieved. Largely facilitated by advances in electronic capability and computerization, it can be expected that these improvements will continue. However, marked variability of results still occurs and we cannot assure any individual patient of their outcome. Realistic goals for implementation of new technology include: improved hearing in noise and music perception; effective invisible hearing (no external apparatus); automated fitting; and reduction in outcome variability. This paper provides examples of relevant potential future technologies that can be applied to reach these goals. In the quest for better outcomes, future technology must deliver improved reliability and usability for both clinicians and recipients that does not compromise safety and is affordable. One of the challenges related to the introduction of new technologies is the 'classification' of CI systems and the framework under which sufficient change and increased benefit can be demonstrated to establish a claim of 'new generation CI' and hence increased reimbursement from third-party payers. Significant improvements in hearing outcomes and quality of life associated with CI design changes are difficult to measure, particularly when there is such dramatic benefit from the intervention of cochlear implantation from the individual's perspective. Manufacturers and clinicians need to be objective and undertake appropriate safety studies and long-term and multi-centre clinical trials to ensure that the introduction of new technology is both safe and effective and supported by health systems worldwide.

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  • Robert J S Briggs

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