Another Hearing Aid Consumer’s View, Unbundling And Business Disruption

In this the second post containing consumer views Steve Claridge discusses his views and experiences. Steve is from the UK and whilst a young man, he is an experienced user. He is also a techy, exceptionally au fait with facets of several types of technology. I have conversed with Steve over the years and have always been impressed with his simple, logical arguments pertaining to hearing aid provision.

It feels wrong to write an article about the changes I think we need to see in the hearing aid industry when I’ve been a very happy hearing aid wearer for thirty-odd years. I’ve probably worn somewhere between 10-15 pairs of aids and only once did I receive bad service. Hearing aids have served me well, helped me to hear and allowed me to live the life I’ve wanted – I owe them, and the people who fitted them, a lot.

And yet, I’d still like to see a change in the way hearing aids are sold. I think change is inevitable and I firmly believe that if you are a hearing aid dispenser and you don’t move with the times then you will find future business hard to come by.

The common hearing aid sales model today is for people to pay for the product and the service bundled into one. They pay for the physical product and they also pay for the dispenser’s time, all bundled into one flat price. Many dispenser’s offer a pay-monthly plan but it is still essentially one fixed price for the product and the service. And it’s usually a high price, after buying a huse and a car, a hearing aid is one of the biggest purchases most people will ever make.

From a healthcare point of view I can understand the bundling of the product and service as a way to make sure a customer receives the necessary care and advice before starting out with their new aid. But, does every customer receive the same amount of service? Personally, I have used up a lot of dispensers’ time over the years, I’ve had a lot of re-programming done, I’ve probably got my money’s worth. The polar opposite to me is my Mum, she recently got a pair of Oticon’s through the NHS, she went for a hearing test and had moulds taken, went back once for fitting and some brief instruction and has been a very happy user since then. We would both pay the same price even though I used a lot of service and she didn’t. Considering the bulk of a hearing aid’s price is the service, I don’t see that as being very fair. A question for dispensers: how many hours of service do you add onto an aid in order to set the price? Is there a fixed number of hours always added or does it depend on the model being sold and who it is being sold to?

From what I’ve read, global hearing aid sales are strong and so it would seem that the current pricing strategy is not negatively effecting profits. But the Internet and improving technology is going to change that very soon.

Already there are a number of online hearing aid vendors. Some of these allow customers to upload their audiogram and they deliver an aid programmed to that, other sell devices that are pre-programmed for the the common high frequency ski slope loss. Some online purchases ship with some programming software so that users can make their own tweaks. This way of selling is going to be huge once people start to realise they can buy hearing aids much cheaper online.

I haven’t seen any self-programming software in operation recently so I don’t know if this already happens but it would be very easy for software to safely programme people’s aids based on some simple feedback from the user. My own requests for re-programming usually run along the lines of “everything is too quiet”, “hearing at home is great but I need more volume in the office”, “road noise when I’m driving is too loud”, “I can hear people behind me better than people in front of me” and so on. Stuff that software could easily work out what to do with, “everything is too quiet” = volume up, “hearing at home is great but need more volume in office” = add another programme with more volume for office use. It would not be difficult to produce software that makes these decisions based on questions from the user, updates the hearing aid and then offers test sounds through the computer so the user can test out their changes.

The word “disruption” gets thrown around a lot these days, some startup in Silicon Valley is always disrupting something or other, but it’s not just another tech-industry buzzword. Technology, and the internet in particular, is completing changing major industries – the music industry looks nothing like it did 10 years ago, the book-publishing industry had completely changed as well. Healthcare will follow, that is a certainty. It is easy to say that these new ways of selling hearing aids are unsafe or that they will not work but change is going to happen, it is already happening, if you stick with the old way of doing business then others will embrace the new technology and new business models and leave you behind. It is difficult to imagine someone paying $3000 for a pair of aids and having to make multiple visits to a dispenser when they can pay less than half that online and control their own hearing from the comfort of their armchair.

Hearing aids are not a special case.

It is tempting to think that hearing aids and the fitting of them is some special case and that the current model must remain. It’s not. Sure, the science of hearing is out of reach of most people but people should not need to know the technical details of how they hear in order to adjust their own aids – the software they get with their aids should be smart enough to do the hard science stuff for them. Good software makes hard things easy. Every day people use software and hardware that hides the technical and scientific difficulties from the user to enable them to do stuff – just two examples that spring immediately to mind: the words you are reading right now use bezier curves to render on your computer screen and the images on Geoffrey’s website are stored using fourier transforms to make them small and quick to download. Clever stuff that I do not fully understand and I do not need to understand, someone else has done the hard work and made it easy for me to use. Hearing aid programming will become the same, all of the existing scientific and expert knowledge will be known by a computer and made easy for someone to use at the push of a button.

Self-programming at home and internet sales are almost certainly the future of hearing aids sales. I think that any concern with needing a qualified professional to check over programming and make adjustments will be covered by offering dispensers and audiologists the ability to “dial in” to someone’s self-programmer and let them view their setup and make adjustments remotely.

The next few years are going to be an interesting time in hearing aid sales. It will be interesting to see if improved online sales and self programming help get more aids into more ears at lower prices.

Steve Claridge has been wearing hearing aids for the best part of 35 years and has been writing about them at hearing aid know.com for six years. He’s a software developer who would love to change career and become an HA dispenser. His software projects and tech-based writing can be found at more of less.co.uk.

About Geoffrey Cooling

my name is Geoffrey Cooling and I am the author here at Just Audiology Stuff. I have been involved in the Hearing Healthcare Profession for several years now. I initially worked as a Hearing Healthcare Professional for a large national retailer in Ireland. After several years in Practice I was approached to work for a manufacturer, where I was employed for five years. I am now the Co Founder of a business called Audiology Engine. We design websites, undertake content marketing and generally look after everything digital for audiological practices. I am also a contributor to many hearing profession periodicals and websites. I have written two commercially available books, The Little Book of Hearing Aids which is written for hearing aid consumers and Audiology Marketing in a Digital World which is written for Audiology Practice Owners. They are both available in Paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon. I also write for consumers on the website Hearing Aid Know, which is a website with the mission of demystifying hearing aids, their types and their technology. I have a great interest in commercial strategy as it applies to Healthcare in general and specifically to Hearing Healthcare. I also have a great interest in the psychology of sales and human interaction. I have been involved with social media for some time, both personally and professionally. I find the engagement and discourse on some social media channels fascinating. I instituted social media strategy for the company I worked for as an experiment. That experiment soon spread throughout the company and I am proud to say that the company is probably one of the most active in the industry. I would like to point out that all views, opinions and thoughts here are mine own. Unless of course they have been planted by the pod people, you just can’t take your eyes off the pod people. Those views do not necessarily reflect upon any views or opinions held by my employer, if I ever get another one. I think that our industry is in the middle of a time of huge change, I think that the change will be forced by both internal and external pressure. I think that private Independent Healthcare Practices will have to be smart and lithe of feet in order to meet these changes. I hope that some of my blatherings are of benefit to those Practices, Independent Hearing Healthcare Practices need to survive. I believe that if that occurs it will be of real benefit to Patients. I hope that I, and my writings will play a small part in their continued success.

4 Comments

  1. Pingback: My guest article about the future of hearing aid sales: prices, the internet and self-programming | Hearing Aid Know

  2. Great article. I have been thinking that for years. I have had a profound hearing loss my whole life, and have only tried hearing aids twice. Once in elementary school and once in college. Both were such horrible experiences.

    But to stay on topic, I specifically asked years ago when I was looking into getting them a 3rd time why I could’t just program them myself at home. The audiologist looked at me like I was crazy. I replied it would be nice to change the settings of the aids while I was in an environment that I am normally in, and to be able to tweak as I learned more about my hearing loss. It actually feels like this is this is the way it should be.

    I hope your article is correct. I know there is the Starkey AMP iPad app that allows changes. I actually installed it, but it needed a code from an audiologist to be able to use it. Bummer. No control means they can’t have my money.

  3. On topic but different experience – I have been thinking of changing my tv service – I have DISH and was intrigued by the recent offers from Time Warner (a Samsung tablet, $200 gift card, etc) so went in to talk to them. The terms and add ons were so confusing…..extra for internet charge, box charges (per tv), DVR charges, free for 6 months extras (then you must cancel)…..I have decided to pass on their offers….and also to keep my prices bundled!

  4. Self or “personal programmable” hearing aids are definitely part of the hearing aid industry’s future. The cost effective dispensing of hearing aids with the added ability to tweak the sound settings yourself at home is the way it should be. Internet sales with the added benefit of consumer adjustment with technical remote support is the most cost effective business model available. HearSource.com offers all that for $995 per hearing aid. I believe that for some, this is an awesome way to achieve the best in hearing outcome.

Let me know what you think