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.