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Hearing aids have not previously always worked well with mobile phones, because of electronic interference between the 2 devices that triggered static, whistling or squealing noises, or dropped words. Technology enhancements along with new regulations have largely eliminated this issue. Today cell phone – hearing aid compatibility is not the huge challenge it used to be. To help consumers shop for the right hearing aid compatible cell phone, the new regulations include a standard rating system and labeling requirement.

Understanding the rating system requires a bit of knowledge about the modes that hearing aids can operate in. There is an M mode (which stands for microphone) and a T mode (which stands for telecoil). When your hearing aid is in M mode, it uses the built-in microphone to pick up audible sounds from around you and amplify them to make them easier for you to hear. When the hearing aid is in T mode, instead of the microphone it uses its built-in telecoil to directly pick up conversations from inside the phone, in the form of electromagnetic signals. Currently, approximately 60% of hearing aids sold in the U.S. have a telecoil or T mode.

The two modes – M and T – are each rated on a scale of 1 to 4 where 1 is the lowest sensitivity and 4 is the highest. No mobile phone or cordless handset sold in the United States can be sold as hearing aid compatible (HAC) unless it has a rating of at least M3 or T3.

Hearing aids and cochlear implants have a similar M and T rating system to certify how sensitive they are in each mode, and how resistant they are to radio frequency interference. When shopping for a phone, to determine its compatibility with your hearing aid, simply add its M and T ratings together with those of the phone to create a combined rating. A combined rating of 6 or more is considered excellent, a hearing aid/phone combination that would provide highly usable, interference-free performance. A sum of 5 is considered normal and should work fine for typical cell phone users. A sum of 4 is considered acceptable, but if you are a heavy cell phone user, you may be disappointed or frustrated with this choice.

Since being introduced, the new rating system has made it much easier to shop for a mobile phone online and determine its compatibility with your hearing aid in advance. If you are able to shop in a store that allows you to “try before you buy” and actually use the phone you want while wearing your hearing aid, that is of course a better idea.