Earlens: Contact Lens for The Ear – In-Depth Doctor’s Interview


Seth Oringher, MD, Ear, Nose and Throat Physician, Chief of ENT at Sibley Hospital/Division of Johns Hopkins Medicine in Washington, D.C., talks about a drug that brings cholesterol levels to such a low point they are able to prevent some heart diseases.

Tell me about Earlens. What exactly is this?

ORINGHER: Earlens is the first and only hearing device that reproduces the natural hearing by gently vibrating the eardrum with a lens that’s put directly on the eardrum. Traditional hearing aids use tiny speakers to send the sound to the eardrum. Earlens is the first one that reproduces the natural way that hearing is supposed to occur.

Is this something that a patient can insert or place in the ear themselves?

ORINGHER: The Earlens consists of three parts. There’s a processor that sits on top of the ear, a piece that goes into the ear that has an ear tip, and then a lens that goes directly down on the eardrum itself that must be inserted by an ear, nose and throat doctor. We need to make a very detailed mold of the entire ear canal, including a mold of the eardrum itself, and then about two weeks later, the company sends us the lens. The patient comes back in the office and has the lens inserted by the ear, nose and throat doctor, and it stays there until we remove it.

Does the Earlens need to be moist like a contact lens? Can you describe how that’s done and why that needs to be done?

ORINGHER: The patients are given a dispenser of mineral oil, and they are supposed to apply the mineral oil every other day to the ear. The mineral oil seems to work by stopping any migration of the Earlens off the eardrum itself. It’s an important part of it, but really the only maintenance that the patient needs to do that’s different from traditional hearing aids.

How much of a difference does this make for patients?

ORINGHER: It makes a tremendous difference because with Earlens, it covers a much larger bandwidth than traditional hearing aids. It allows them to hear the much higher frequencies than compared to a traditional hearing aid. And by doing that, it makes sound much crisper and allows better hearing in noisy environments.

Can you describe what that’s like for our viewers who have not had that kind of sensation?

ORINGHER: That’s the problem that most people have with traditional hearing aids. They find that they amplify the sounds that they don’t want to hear like dishes or glasses clanging. It also doesn’t amplify the high frequencies and the low frequencies quite as well, which gives real richness and tone to our hearing. By amplifying a much broader speech frequency range, which is what the Earlens does, it gives them much more natural sound and makes the sound crisper, especially in noisy environments.

Who is a good candidate for this?

ORINGHER: Anybody that has anywhere from a mild to severe nerve hearing loss. We’ve had the best luck at this point with people that are in traditional hearing aids because they are the ones that can really appreciate the difference.

How long has Earlens been around and is it FDA approved?

ORINGHER:  It’s been around for three years now and is FDA approved. There have been some changes along the way with technology. You know how iPhones change every year. But the generation that’s out right now, I think they’ve really gotten it correct, and the patients are doing just incredibly well with it. It’s really the first game changer in the 30 years I’ve been doing this. All other hearing aids traditionally work the same way. There are just little speakers that kind of send the sound to the ear drum. That’s not the way we’re supposed to hear. We’re supposed to hear by the ear drum vibrating, which sends the sound to the inner ear, so this makes sense in that it really helps restore a fuller, more natural hearing by vibrating the ear drum itself.

What is the cost and is it covered by insurance?

ORINGHER: Most insurance companies don’t cover hearing aids in general. The cost of the Earlens is $12,000. It includes my care, being able to make the mold, three years of service which includes if it gets displaced or something happens and it gets lost, they will replace it. It’s hard to say what the cost of good hearing should be, but compared to a lot of the surgical interventions that we have that might be similar to this, the Earlens is less expensive.

What are some of those surgical interventions?

ORINGHER: There’s cochlear implants and middle ear surgeries that are done to help with different devices they have. The Earlens is a lot simpler and works better.

What percentage of your patients are currently fitted with the Earlens?

ORINGHER: At this point, we’re offering it to about 10% of people that are in more traditional. I think as people do start to experience the difference in quality, we’ll see more and more patients going straight to Earlens because there is a comparator, meaning that there is something we could hook them up to in the office that they can hear the difference from traditional hearing aids to what an Earlens system sounds like. And once they hear the difference in the crispness of the sound and the quality, people are convinced.

Your patient, Allen, was shown the ways he could modify the volume on his phone. Can you walk me through that?

ORINGHER: It’s compatible at this point just with the iPhone, but patients are able to control the device through their iPhone to make it louder or softer. They can also set different programs, so if they know there’s a restaurant they go to every time that’s a certain level, they might have a program that they can push that allows it to be set for that specific environment, or if they know they’re going to be around a group of grandchildren, and they need it set for that. The audiologist is able to program it with different programs that they then can control through their iPhone with the software that comes with it.

How much of a tool is this for you and what kind of a benefit is it for seniors?

ORINGHER: I think it will help improve their quality of life. A lot of seniors, as they get older, want to continue to be very social, be out and hanging with family and friends. When you don’t have good hearing, that could create a lot of social isolation, and people get depressed when they can’t spend time with family and friends because they have difficulty hearing in those environments. So, I think as people get older and have something like this that will allow them to be around family, in restaurants, celebrating special occasions with a hearing device that allows them to restore their normal hearing and allow it to be crisp, it could be a game changer for a lot of our senior citizens.

Can patients feel anything? Once you get used to contact lenses, you can’t feel them. Is it the same principle with Earlens?

ORINGHER: Yes. That’s a great point because it is very similar to a contact lens. When I first place the lens, patients might notice for the first few days that they feel a little something in the ear. It doesn’t hurt, but they might notice something there. But after a few days, they don’t notice it’s even there.

Can you swim and shower with it?

ORINGHER: Yes. You can swim and you can shower with it. Studies have shown that 96% of patients who use the Earlens are happy with the quality of the sound that they’re hearing, and of the majority of patients that have been in traditional hearing aids, 75% of them find that the quality of sound is much improved with the Earlens.

You had mentioned a lot of people start with the traditional hearing aids and then move to the Earlens. Is that a cost factor or is it just getting used to having a hearing aid factor?

ORINGHER: I think with most patients, you really want them to see why it’s worth the money. So, if somebody has been in a traditional hearing aid and they try the Earlens, they’ll notice it’s great. But they won’t really notice why the difference in price. That’s why we started with those patients initially. Again, I think it will expand to patients who haven’t been in hearing aids at all, and they’ll tolerate the hearing aids better because they’ll see how much better it is.

How long do the Earlens last?

ORINGHER: Indefinitely at this point. There’s no expiration date on them. The new generation of Earlens has been out for about a year now, so those patients have been wearing it for a year and doing great. There’s not an automatic time that it runs out or needs to be changed. The processor, which is the thing that they wear on top of their ear, those batteries are rechargeable, so every night when they go home, they just put the hearing aid in the recharger, and it charges up, and the next day they just put it back in.

Interview conducted by Ivanhoe Broadcast News.


This information is intended for additional research purposes only. It is not to be used as a prescription or advice from Ivanhoe Broadcast News, Inc. or any medical professional interviewed. Ivanhoe Broadcast News, Inc. assumes no responsibility for the depth or accuracy of physician statements. Procedures or medicines apply to different people and medical factors; always consult your physician on medical matters.

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