Hearing loss can be challenging in a variety of situations. That is why hearing aid technology is constantly being enhanced to help wearers master the most difficult listening situations. The use of masks as well as increased distancing while talking because of the coronavirus pandemic is a unique challenge that can be very frustrating even for people with normal hearing. But for the hard of hearing it can prove especially difficult.
To help support hearing aid wearers to continue to communicate safely and effectively during these unprecedented times, Signia offers flexible solutions for you as a Hearing Care Professional (HCP) and your clients to optimize speech intelligibility in this “new normal” world of face masks and physical distancing. The latest audiology bulletin from Signia, Removing the Masking without Removing the Mask: Improving communication with face masks, outlines how effectively Signia hearing aids master this new challenge.
The adverse effects of masks on speech understanding
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread around the world, many more people have started to wear face masks for their own protection and the protection of others. In combination with keeping a greater physical distance from other people, it is important to consider how this impacts speech communication.
Not only do masks cover the mouth, restricting any visual speech cues that we might usually also rely on, from a simple smile to full lip-reading. They also affect the acoustic properties of the speech signal itself. This is significant because visual cues are proven to help improve listening performance, even in noise. And masks can reduce frequencies in the 2000-7000 Hz range by between 3 to 12 dB* depending on the type of mask being used by the person who is talking. Even someone with normal hearing could experience a decrease in audibility of about 30% in this situation, according to the audiology bulletin. This is then exacerbated by the lack of visual cues.
How social distancing affects speech understanding
Social distancing recommendations vary globally, but many governments advise maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet (2 meters) from people outside the household and anyone with COVID-19 symptoms. Many conversations usually happen at half that distance, however. So doubling the distance further weakens the already reduced speech signal due to wearing a mask. As a result, an already challenging communication situation becomes even more difficult.
How you can help to improve listening and speech understanding
Though it might seem daunting at first to tackle such an increased reduction in speech intelligibility due to masks and distancing, understanding their impact provides effective solutions to this new audiological challenge. In a first step, our new audiology bulletin offers clear advice on how to ensure good communication with your patients in the clinical setting:
- Face the patient when talking
- Consider wearing an approved clear face shield to maximize lip/face cues
- Speak slowly and clearly
- Rephrase rather than just repeat what was not understood
- Minimize environmental noise
- Have information ready in written form to minimize communication errors
It is also advisable to inform hearing aid wearers of the adverse acoustic effects of face masks and offer them the measures listed above as a way to improve speech understanding in their daily life.
Connexx holds the key to unlocking the COVID conundrum
In a next step, beyond the behavioral adjustments outlined above, it is also possible to adapt the hearing aids’ amplification to this new situation. This can also be achieved via remote fine-tuning with Signia TeleCare without the patient needing to visit you in person. By conducting a virtual appointment via video call, you can remove the need for face masks completely.
The audiology bulletin explains in detail how setting up a new “Mask” program in Connexx, based on the Universal Program, can compensate for the adverse effects of a face mask and other communication considerations with just a few programming adjustments.
Patients can also further adjust the settings of their Universal Program in line with their real-life wishes by using the Signia app. For Signia Xperience hearing aids**, the Signia Assistant provides real-time, in-app support for the hearing aid wearer. If the wearer is having difficulty understanding speech from behind a mask, they may ask the Signia Assistant for support with “Other Voices” and then “Speech in General”. All wearers using hearing aids compatible with the Signia app can use the app to control the volume and sound balance, specifically high frequency gain, which they can increase to improve speech clarity.
Full details of the steps needed to effectively tackle the audiological challenges of the coronavirus crisis are now available in the Signia audiology bulletin Removing the Masking without Removing the Mask: Improving communication with face masks available in our online Signia Library.
* Llamas C, Harrison P, Donnelly D, Watt d. Effects of different types of face coverings on speech acoustics and intelligibiltiy. York Papers in Linguistics, 2(9): 80-104.
** excluding Silk X