For 70 years, Maico Diagnostics has developed diagnostic hearing assessment devices for a diverse market segment, from clinicians to school nurses.

Before forming what became Maico Diagnostics in 1937, Leland Watson was a successful sales manager for an infant hearing aid company. But Watson was more than a salesman, he was also an innovator. As the son of a Minneapolis ear physician, he recognized that early audiometers were complicated, requiring intricate calculations to measure a patient’s hearing loss. Realizing the need for clinicians like his father to have an easy-to-use audiometer, Watson established Maico in a one-room office laboratory and eventually developed the Maico D5, the first audiometer to incorporate a simple standard to calculate the loss of hearing. The D5 subsequently became the first audiometer recognized by the American Medical Association (AMA) and the National Bureau of Standards (now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology).

Seventy years later, the company has maintained that “keep-it-simple” philosophy. Headquartered in Eden Prairie, Minn, Maico Diagnostics offers screening and diagnostic hearing assessment devices that incorporate the latest technological advancements while still keeping the devices—and its customer service—user-friendly.

“We try to make our products really easy to use,” says Tricia Mikolai, Maico’s marketing manager. “Everything that we make has a standard way of operating it. So if you have one Maico instrument, it’s pretty intuitive to use any of our instruments.”

7 Decades of Development
While Maico is known today for its audiometers and hearing screening devices, Watson was an early innovator in hearing aids as well. Maico’s UA hearing aid, released in 1941, was the first wearable vacuum tube hearing aid to receive recognition from the AMA. In 1953, Maico also completely transistorized its Model O Transist-Ear, replacing the larger vacuum tubes.

Maico innovations continued after Watson’s death in a plane crash in 1960. Since then, the company was purchased and sold several times until 1994, when the William Demant Group, Copenhagen, Denmark, brought Maico into its family of hearing health device manufactures, which include the Interacoustics and Bernafon brands, as well as other divisions.

Mikolai says being part of a larger company has its advantages. “The beautiful thing about having a parent company is that we get to share resources, R&D, inventory, purchasing, and quality control. So, we’re able to operate very efficiently with a small number of people,” Mikolai says.

Maico has 28 full-time employees at its US headquarters and also has manufacturing and sales facilities in Berlin and Copenhagen.

Today, Maico no longer manufactures or distributes hearing aids, but instead focuses on screening and diagnostic instruments for various hearing health needs. Its range of devices include audiometry, high-frequency tympanometry, hearing aid fitting/assessment devices, middle ear analyzing, screening and diagnostic otoacoustic emissions (OAE) testing, select picture audiometry, tympanometry, and tympanometry/audiometry combination testing.

Following in the traditions of its founder, Maico develops some of its products by listening to the needs of hearing health care professionals and incorporating suggestions from customers on the front lines. David Adlin, Maico’s national sales manager, attends approximately 20 trade shows per year, where he says he is frequently approached by audiologists, pediatricians, and hearing conservation nurses who talk to him about their specific needs.

“I hear their concerns and I try to understand what they want, how it would make their job easier, or what we can do to get them to accept hearing screening in their practice. Then we bring that [information] back to the office, discuss it, and decide which facility is best able to bring that technology to the street,” Adlin says.

Maico also keeps it simple with its product development personnel. Its small team of experienced scientists maintains relationships with different hearing health facilities, including the Massachusetts General Eye & Ear Infirmary in Boston and the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles. In addition, Maico utilizes its parent company’s laboratories in Denmark and Germany.

“We draw on a number of experienced scientists and managers who have a passion for testing or correcting hearing losses,” Adlin says. “Then we use those resources to see if the technology would be accepted in the different markets.”

Ease of Use
Maico’s range of screening and diagnostic devices are targeted to nine market segments, including audiologists, ENT physicians, family physicians, Head Start programs, hearing conservation nurses, hearing aid dispensers, newborn hearing screening, pediatricians, and school nurses.

While Mikolai knows that many audiometer manufacturers are vying for the same markets, she says Maico Diagnostics remains competitive because of the way the company designs its products. “We’re trying to hit the most people in the best way: by having an easy-to-use product,” she says, adding that a product’s ease of use can help any hearing professional—from an intern to a temporary worker. “You just don’t know how much knowledge a person has when you sit down to do a test. We try to make our equipment such that anyone—without ever having used Maico’s equipment before—can perform a test after just sitting down and pressing a few keys to see how it works.”

Consequently, many of Maico’s instruments are menu driven, allowing institutions to easily change the default settings with a few keystrokes on the display menu.

In addition, some of Maico’s tympanometers have an ear probe with an LED light that turns green when the seal is good, then signals the start of the test. Though the LED light is a small detail in the overall design, it can be a very helpful signal to those who are less experienced with administering a tympanometry test.

Maico also demonstrated its commitment to easy-to-use technology with the creation of its MI-44 middle ear analyzer, which features the most popular functions for audiologists, such as manual and automatic pump control, two probes (one for screening and one for diagnostic), and several high-frequency tones—all of the typical diagnostic tests an audiologist might perform on a daily basis. Maico’s MA-42 is another example of a simple audiometer for clinicians. The two-channel diagnostic audiometer includes air conduction from 125 Hz to 8 kHz, bone conduction and masking, a PC interface, a master hearing aid, as well as other professional features, all in a small, portable package.

Simple Screening for Children and Infants
While Maico Diagnostics’ devices serve all ages, the company has worked diligently to create a selection of hearing screening instruments for infants and children. Since the Joint Committee on Infant Hearing (JCIH) released its Year 2000 Position Statement endorsing the “universal detection of infants with hearing loss,” the child screening market has steadily expanded.

“We don’t count a child’s hearing test [that results in] a pass as a success,” Adlin says. “We like to pride ourselves that, using objective technology, when we find a student who has a hearing loss at that age, that’s a success for us because now we can help them.”

One of Maico’s screening products is its ERO-SCAN™ line of OAE screening devices. OAE screeners objectively test the integrity of the outer hair cell function in the cochlea and can indirectly assess middle ear function; if there is damage to the outer hair cells, otoacoustic emissions will not be present.

Maico has developed three models of the ERO-SCAN, including a compact newborn screener, a larger child/adult screener, and a standard model for clinicians. Consistent with Maico’s easy-to-use philosophy, the screeners are “pass/refer” tests. ERO-SCAN’s “pass” result succinctly indicates that OAEs are present and that the person’s hearing level is at least 30 dB.

Because an ERO-SCAN test takes only about 10 seconds, it can be very helpful with infant screenings. “Infants can be moving around a bit. In order to get a good test, ultimately you’d like a quiet environment with a sleeping infant. So that’s a challenge,” Mikolai says. “The ERO-SCAN is a very good device to overcome those obstacles because it’s such a fast test. Even if you can’t do it immediately, once the child is sleeping, you can get [the probe] inside the ear and get it done very quickly.”

Maico also has developed a line of children’s pure tone audiometers designed to distract 3- to 6-year-olds with fun graphics while the test is being performed, giving the experience a play-like feel. For example, the Detective Audiometer has voice prompts, in English and Spanish, that guide the child through testing and miscues. Manual or automatic mode makes it convenient for testing administrators who may not be familiar with the equipment.

Because traditional audiometers may be intimidating to young children and because some instructions can be confusing, Maico also developed a select picture audiometer (SPA), the Digital Pilot Test, a compact package that includes a pure tone audiometer and an SPA. The SPA portion consists of a display board that shows a series of kid-friendly images, each corresponding to a specific decibel level, from 15 dB to 50 dB. Wearing earphones, a child listens to the Pilot’s preprogrammed voice commands at a particular decibel level. For example, the child may hear the command “Show me the sailboat” at 40 dB. If the child hears the command, he should point to the sailboat image.

Inserting a probe and getting a good seal for tympanometer screening also can be daunting on a child. Consequently, Maico designed the Race Car Tympanometer, which has a racing car overlay with a large LCD screen. Once the test person puts the probe into the child’s ear and gets a good seal, the child is distracted by an animated car race on the LCD. When the test is complete, the car crosses the finish line and “wins” the race. The 5-second air conduction test emits either two-syllable words or pure tones.

For More Information
Maico’s keep-it-simple attitude extends from its products to its Web site, as well. Each product featured on the site provides browsing customers with a brief description and specifications of the product, and also provides a link for frequently asked questions and an operations manual. In many cases, the item has an informative guide about the device’s technology and its application in a particular market. Several products also have videos that can be downloaded.

In addition to product information, Maico’s Web site includes information for submitting insurance reimbursements. Providing a list of insurance codes for diagnostic tests can save hearing health professionals and their billing departments valuable time and frustration.

Although Maico provides all of this information at the click of the mouse, Adlin and Mikolai advise clients to buy equipment through its network of specialty instrument dealers. Adlin says the advantage of buying Maico’s products through its instrument dealer network is that the customer is guaranteed training and service; a nearby distributor also will be close enough to address any problems on-site.

“You may pay a premium for that,” Adlin says, “but if the consumer decides to buy that same product off the Internet with no training or no warranty, then it’s buyer beware. You’re not going to get the training and service that would be warranted for proper use of the instrumentation.” He adds that there is a greater chance the user could get a misdiagnosis if the operator is not properly trained or the unit is incorrectly calibrated.

Coming Up Next
Maico Diagnostics is seeking to expand its presence and product line for hearing clinicians. “We’ve got a really good hold on screening and a really good name with those markets, especially the school nurse market. So we’d like to be more of a competitor with clinical practices,” Mikolai says.

To meet that challenge, the company is developing a new PC-based audiometer called the Maestro, which will have features for clinical practices, including sound-in-noise testing, word lists, live voice testing, and recorded speech testing.

Maico also is developing a new combination tympanometer and OAE unit that will be a handheld device similar to the ERO-SCAN, but will have an attachment to perform tympanometry.

The company plans to introduce a new auditory brainstem response (ABR) newborn screening product as well. “With ABR, there is a high cost of disposables, averaging anywhere from $7 to $11 per patient. We are working on a device that would minimize disposable costs or give the customer a choice between using gels and liquids or having earmuffs or electrodes to determine the ABR test,” Adlin says.

Maico’s new products are scheduled to be released into the marketplace later this year.

Tor Valenza is staff writer for Hearing Products Report. He can be reached at [email protected]