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Cochlear implant tuning goes remote with new B.C. pilot project

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WATCH: B.C. team develops technology to perform remote tuning of cochlear impacts – Dec 16, 2020

A new pilot project could mean that British Columbians with cochlear implants will one day no longer need to make the trip to Vancouver to have their devices adjusted.

The initiative, which lets specialized medical technicians at St. Paul’s Hospital connect remotely with patients implants, has already been rolled out on parts of Vancouver Island.

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That’s been a boon to patients like Alan Holt.

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Holt lives in Duncan, and had been delaying his annual appointment to have his implant reprogrammed, a process known as mapping, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“I delayed my appointment because of COVID. I didn’t want to go to Vancouver,” he said.

Under the joint pilot project between Providence Healthcare and Island Health, Holt can now go to Victoria’s Royal Jubilee Hospital instead.

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Patients head to a special telehealth room where they connect virtually with audiologists at St. Paul’s, the only site in the province that handles adult cochlear implants.

Those trained experts direct patients like Holt on how to connect their equipment, and then get to work virtually.

That ease of access means Holt, who lost his hearing gradually over a lifetime of work in pulp mills, isn’t missing out on anything.

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“It’s the small things. They put the cochlear in and right away I could hear birds singing,” he said.

St. Paul’s audiologist Jowan Lee said the program is still in its infancy, and is only appropriate for people who’ve gone through their first year of tests and checkups after getting their implant.

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It’s also not a complete replacement for in-person sessions. According to Lee, patients would need to come in every three or four years instead of annually.

But he has high hopes for the future.

“The ultimate goal is to establish this program for Vancouver Island, possibly to replicate this north Island or mid-island, and then down the line to take this technology and replicate it in Northern Health and Interior Health,” Lee said.

The virtual sessions are also more efficient than in-person visits, and Lee said it’s allowed staff to go from two appointments a day to three or four.

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For Holt, it’s a whole different kind of efficiency — and one he loves.

“Being on the island, it’s such a hassle to go to Vancouver, downtown. I jumped at the chance of coming just to Victoria,” he said.

“Being an older person, I don’t interact well with the traffic that’s there. And then of course you’ve got to find parking. It’s all the stress factors that come into play.”

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