Probe-microphone testing was conducted in the laboratory as early as the 1940s (e.g., the classic work of Wiener and Ross, reported in 1946), however, it was not until the late 1970s that a “dispenser friendly” system was available for testing hearing aids in the real ear. In this case, the term “dispenser friendly,” is used somewhat loosely. The 1970s equipment that I'm referring to was first described in a paper that was presented by Earl Harford, Ph.D. in September of 1979 at the International Ear Clinics' Symposium in Minneapolis. At this meeting, Earl reported on his clinical experiences of testing hearing aids in the real ear using a miniature (by 1979 standards) Knowles microphone. The microphone was coupled to an interfacing impedance matching system (developed by David Preves, Ph.D., who at the time worked at Starkey Laboratories) which could be used with existing hearing aid analyzer systems (see Harford, 1980 for review of this early work). Unlike today's probe tube microphone systems, this early method of clinical real-ear measurement involved putting the entire microphone (about 4mm by 5mm by 2mm) in the ear canal down by the eardrum of the patient. If you think cerumen is a problem with probe-mic measurements today, you should have seen the condition of this microphone after a day's work!
While this early instrumentation was a bit cumbersome, we quickly learned the advantages that probe-microphone measures provided in the fitting of hearing aids. We frequently ran into calibration and equalization problems, not to mention a yelp or two from the patient, but the resulting information was worth the trouble.
Help soon arrived. In the early 1980s, the first computerized probe-tube microphone system, the Rastronics CCI-10 (developed in Denmark by Steen Rasmussen), entered the U.S. market (Nielsen and Rasmussen, 1984). This system had a silicone tube attached to the microphone (the transmission of sound through this tube was part of the calibration process), which eliminated the need to place the microphone itself in the ear canal. By early 1985, three or four different manufactures had introduced this new type of computerized probe-microphone equipment, and this hearing aid verification procedure became part of the standard protocol for many audiology clinics. At his time, the POGO (Prescription Of Gain and Output) and Libby 1/3 prescriptive fitting methods were at the peak of their popularity, and a revised NAL (National Acoustic Laboratories) procedure was just being introduced. All three of these methods were based on functional gain, but insertion gain easily could be substituted, and therefore, manufacturers included calculation of these prescriptive targets as part of the probe-microphone equipment software. Audiologists, frustrated with the tedious and unreliable functional gain procedure they had been using, soon developed a fascination with matching real-ear results to prescriptive targets on a computer monitor.
In some ways, not a lot has changed since those early days of probe-microphone measurements. Most people who use this equipment simply run a gain curve for a couple inputs and see if it's close to prescriptive target—something that could be accomplished using the equipment from 1985. Contrary to the predictions of many, probe-mic measures have not become the “standard hearing aid verification procedure.” (Mueller and Strouse, 1995). There also has been little or no increase in the use of this equipment in recent years. In 1998, I reported on a survey that was conducted by The Hearing Journal regarding the use of probe-microphone measures (Mueller, 1998). We first looked at what percent of people dispensing hearing aids own (or have immediate access to) probe-microphone equipment. Our results showed that 23% of hearing instrument specialists and 75% of audiologists have this equipment. Among audiologists, ownership varied among work settings: 91% for hospitals/clinics, 73% for audiologists working for physicians, and 69% for audiologists in private practice. But more importantly, and a bit puzzling, was the finding that showed that nearly one half of the people who fit hearing aids and have access to this equipment, seldom or never use it.
I doubt that the use rate of probe-microphone equipment has changed much in the last three years, and if anything, I suspect it has gone down. Why do I say that? As programmable hearing aids have become the standard fitting in many clinics, it is tempting to become enamoured with the simulated gain curves on the fitting screen, somehow believing that this is what really is happening in the real ear. Additionally, some dispensers have been told that you can't do reliable probe-mic testing with modern hearing aids—this of course is not true, and we'll address this issue in the Frequently Asked Questions portion of this paper.
The infrequent use of probe-mic testing among dispensers is discouraging, and let's hope that probe-mic equipment does not suffer the fate of the rowing machine stored in your garage. A lot has changed over the years with the equipment itself, and there are also expanded clinical applications and procedures. We have new manufacturers, procedures, acronyms and noises. We have test procedures that allow us to accurately predict the output of a hearing aid in an infant's ear. We now have digital hearing aids, which provide us the opportunity to conduct real-ear measures of the effects of digital noise reduction, speech enhancement, adaptive feedback, expansion, and all the other features. Directional microphone hearing aids have grown in popularity and what better way to assess the real-ear directivity than with probe-mic measures? The array of assistive listening devices has expanded, and so has the role of the real-ear assessment of these products. And finally, with today's PC -based systems, we can program our hearing aids and simultaneously observe the resulting real-ear effects on the same fitting screen, or even conduct an automated target fitting using earcanal monitoring of the output. There have been a lot of changes, and we'll talk about all of them in this issue of Trends.