Where Do We Fit in The Future Augmented Audio Model?

What will retail audiology offer in five years time?

I have written a series of articles on Hearing Aid Know outlining the recent explosion in innovation around augmented audio and the changes I believe it will bring to retail audiology moving forward. That innovation involves audio augmentation in consumer electronics. I think that the innovation within augmented audio and the growing nature of the OTC and DTC market will radically change the fortunes of retail audiology.

So much so that within five to ten years hearing aid (as we know them) sales and the services around them will no longer be a core part of our business. While five to ten years might not seem like a long time, the pace of innovation and change at present is unprecedented and I expect it just to become faster.

Consumers want it their way

While technology innovation is a considerable change pressure, it isn’t the only one. Because trends within both the consumer and healthcare world also add stress to the incumbent model. Consumers are looking for the experience (whatever that may be) their way and in their time constraints. Businesses who facilitate that expectation will do well.

Digitally aware

Consumers are more digitally aware than they have ever been and there is a growing demand for empowerment. They want to be informed so that they can make decisions on their treatments for themselves. They are actively seeking out tools to help them manage their wellness and health.

Managing their health

They are also actively seeking tools that can help them manage their health conditions in a more personalised way. Think health tracking apps and hardware, Bluetooth connected glucose monitors, Bluetooth connected blood pressure cuffs. They use their smartphones to manage this data and to share it with their medical professionals.

Situational devices

We can expect to see many situational devices hitting the market within the next few years. Augmented audio solutions for the TV, augmented audio solutions for cell phones, augmented audio for all types of consumer electronics.

We can also expect to see more earlevel devices equipped with transparent augmented audio (amplification of the real world). We have NuHeara and Alango technologies playing in that space right now, but we have already seen Apple break into it with their Airpods Pro. Who’s next? Consumers will be exposed to augmented audio earlier and will see the benefits. This will lead to earlier adoption of devices to be used all day every day.

Augmented audio explosion

We will see an explosion of relatively decent OTC and DTC devices enter the market. We can expect some competition within that market from some well-known consumer electronics names and conventional hearing aid manufacturers. As the market grows, traditional hearing aid manufacturers will have to enter it; there will be no choice.

For the manufacturers, the market will probably become too big to ignore and will eventually threaten their brand position if they don’t enter it. Brand awareness around hearing aids has never been high, staying away from a large and competitive market will just worsen that.

Artificial intelligence in augmented audio

The increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) in hearing aids will change the fitting and fine-tuning process moving forward. There will be less need for professional intervention for ongoing sound needs and a simplified self-fitting process and sound validation process driven by AI will ensure that there will be less need for fitting and validation.

The model will need to change in response to the reduced need for services associated with hearing loss correction. However, pricing will need to be designed to be flexible to meet the needs of digitally ignorant consumers. This should push the pricing model towards an unbundled model

It is the only way that makes sense for both consumers and professionals. Devices will be priced separately from services and consumers will pay as the play if need be. This could open up subscription models as attractive offerings for both professionals and consumers.

I said that I believed that retail audiology had two choices moving forward, either focus on becoming clinical audiology and contract or concentrate on offering a holistic healthcare approach and grow. The question for us in the profession is what would that look like and importantly, how do we make it pay?

Lexie Hearing Video Support

Driving consumer loyalty in a changing world

As traditional hearing aids change, we will need less face to face in-person time with users. The growing use of machine learning and artificial intelligence by hearing aid manufacturers will mean that less input is needed from us for success. If we aren’t seeing users in the way we have, how are we to drive the consumer loyalty that many of us have enjoyed up to now?

One of the most interesting things about Lexie hearing is their genius gamification of wearing hearing aids. Do the tasks, earn your points and get a discount on the monthly fee! It encourages every user to put the hearing devices through their paces. They combine that gamification with in the minute onboarding support and a strong virtual support offering.

Onboarding and timely communication

I have said elsewhere that I think we can learn from this approach in retail audiology. While Lexie has their own integrated IT infrastructure to undertake the task, we do have tools at our disposal to replicate it. Automated emails and SMS messages can help onboard users, but we don’t use them. We need to begin integrating them as a matter of course.

Remote care will just become more prevalent moving forwards and consumers will expect it. The technology underpinning the systems will get better and remote appointments will become easier and faster as even higher speed internet connection penetrates further into areas that up to now have been underserved.

I think that we will need to adopt a wider customer communication concept and move forward with it. It will allow us to offer support to users in the way they demand. Ongoing timely communication will also help us to remain relevant to a consumer who may not see us in-person for years at a time.

Widening services

It will be imperative for us to widen our service offering to include everything within our scope of practice. That means cerumen management, tinnitus management, balance, hearing conservation, diagnosis and hearing correction. We may also offer broader services that are aligned to either our scope of practice or to new features of available devices. By that, I mean that we may integrate cognitive assessment and central data management of bio readings by so-called hearables.

Currently, cognitive assessment is an ideal process within our model. We don’t need to undertake that assessment for diagnosis or treatment, which would be outside our scope of practice, just for onward referral.It would fit ideally within our model in the same way that recognition of conductive problems such as otosclerosis does now.

The management of bio readings from integrated hearable devices can be a valuable tool for professionals. It will allow hearing care professionals to manage and distribute that data to other healthcare professionals. That data and the growing awareness of hearing loss co-morbidities will elevate hearing care. As the wider healthcare world turns towards an integrated preventative model, hearing care professionals can become a central part of that model.

Widening product offerings

Retail audiology will need to widen its product offerings to include all devices and technologies of an augmented audio nature. We must look at how situational devices, OTC devices and even smartphone apps fit within our business model. There will also be a need to continually assess pricing and service model for the changing nature of what we recognise as hearing aids.

There will still be a need for something akin to our existing model for complex cases, patients with comorbidities, and consumers who are not comfortable with technology and need help with their devices. However, we can not rely on them if our businesses are to be successful.

Omnichannel future

We will need to invest in technology that will allow us to enter the omnichannel world. While larger businesses may be more likely to afford an integrated approach, the larger the business, the higher the complexity. There are practice management service providers who are focused on delivering the tools, when they do, we will need to adopt them and work out how we integrate them into our communication strategies.

Not everyone will survive

Not everyone will survive the changes; however, we are already seeing that now without introducing these new pressures. In the last few years, it has become apparent that retail audiology is splitting into those who are adapting and those who are not.

Some have focused on delivering high levels of care and service to best practice levels in combination with a widening of services offered and integrating a person-centred approach. Those businesses are more successful than ever, and their willingness to adopt and adapt will secure their future.

Others have continued in the manner they always have, and they compete on price. They will find it harder to stand out in a world full of low priced augmented audio offerings from higher-profile players. While we would expect national and international businesses to be the first to react and adapt, they will be slower. There is vast complexity to change within these businesses, and they are never as lithe as successful independents.

Efficency is key to survival

The key moving forward will be to understand implicitly how much your time costs across your business. Understanding this will allow you to cost your services appropriately and remain profitable. To do so, though, you will need to ensure that you manage your time well and optimise your schedule.

It will also involve the optimisation of function for every member of staff; your front office staff should be able to assist with sales of situational devices. You should also equip them with the tools to manage customer self-assessment tests for triage purposes.

Holistic model

If we adopt a holistic approach to hearing healthcare, I believe that we can meet the needs of modern consumers. That approach will involve offering products and services that we have never offered before. It will involve change, and change is always tricky. However, we can not ignore the facts; up to now, many things conspired to ensure our model was incumbent. That is no longer the case.

About Geoffrey Cooling

Geoffrey Cooling is an Irish hearing care blogger and the author of The Little Book of Hearing Aids and Audiology Marketing in a Digital World. He has been involved in the Hearing Healthcare Profession since 2007 when he qualified as a hearing aid audiologist. He has worked in private practice and for a major hearing aid manufacturer. He has become recognised as an authority within the field of hearing care and hearing aids.

One Comment

  1. Great Article Geoffrey. Spot on.
    Especially like your reference to use of AI/ML in adaptive signal processing.

    I see this working via a process I call Adaptive Situational Pattern Stamping.

    The hearing aid is linked via BT to an app that resides on a smartphone. (The app is connected to a server process to offload patterns for backup purposes).

    When the user appears in a new situation (like noisy restaurant), they pause and open the app on their phone. The app proposes a series of configurations tailored to the current ambient signals. They are uploaded to the aids one at a time and the user rates the quality after a short test. The ML aspect will adjust each subsequent iteration. In this process, the user is training the software situationally. When that situation arises again, the aids automatically adjust to the stored pattern. There’s no need to name the pattern. The process is effortless and takes only a few minutes to complete per situation. I imagine a library of a two dozen or so situation patterns would suffice for most users. There’s plenty of AI/ML pattern research in signal and image processing already available that could be leveraged.

    I can envision such a facility being useful for users with “normal” hearing when in a difficult situation, like soldiers on battlefield, presenters in a large hall, musicians in a band, etc.

Let me know what you think

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