3/10Cochlear Implants

Imagine the scenario of a child born with hearing loss - diagnosed within the first month of life. There was a time when this child would have had to face the life-long consequences of hearing loss with very few options.  Imagine, instead,   a team of medical professionals including a surgeon, an audiologist, and a speech-language pathologist confer with the child’s family. .  With appropriate testing, they determine that  the child is a candidate for a cochlear implant. The child receives this implant before his first birthday and begins the habilitative process learning to hear and speak. When the child enters preschool, he is performing at the level of his classmates without hearing loss.  He succeeds developmentally and educationally with the guidance of hearing health professionals.


Hearing loss is the second most common birth defect and affects one in 33 babies born every day. However, only half of these children receive follow-up intervention and guidance. While many children and adults find positive outcomes with hearing aids, which delivers amplified sounds acoustically, those with profound hearing loss can benefit instead from a cochlear implant. A cochlear implant bypasses damaged hearing cells in the cochlea and simulates nerve fibers through an electrical current. About 320,000 people worldwide benefit from cochlear implants and about one-third of those people live in the United States.


Not only are patient outcomes very positive with cochlear implants, they are also extremely cost-effective. A child born with profound hearing loss can incur more than $1 million in lifetime cost without a cochlear implant. The estimated cost of a cochlear implant is $60,000, but many insurers will cover some or all of the cost. Cochlear implantation is one of the most cost-effective medical procedures reported for children and adults. Untreated hearing impairment cost the U.S. economy about $56 billion over time in lost productivity, special education, and medical care.


Despite being such a beneficial procedure, access to cochlear implantation remains poor.  Only 5.6% of Americans who could potentially benefit from having a cochlear implant actually have one  This is largely because awareness is low and early intervention is rare. Parents should have access to information about treatment options so that choices can be made in a timely manner. While many children find success with cochlear implants (and the rate of early intervention rises because of new laws regarding newborn screening) the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) at the National Institutes of Health needs additional and restored funding from sequestration cuts. This is yet another prime example of research that improves patient lives landing on the budget’s chopping block. 

Posted by: Jed Grisel