Hearing Aid Industry at a Crossroads
The consumer, products, and actual marketplace, have already evolved incredibly in the market direction. Yet, both the Audiology and Hearing Aid dispensing ‘Professional’ associations are in denial, and continue to fight, and lobby against one another, in a never ending turf war, over who can sell a hearing aid to whom, and under what conditions.
Each side in this battle, is consistently treating the consumer like some sort of bone to be fought over.
Yet always the arguments, studies, and testimony, by long lists of learned academic experts all boil down to this; we are so much smarter, have so much more specialised education, and skill than you do, that if, you are dumb enough to buy a hearing aid anywhere else but from us, then you are in grave danger of serious physical, and economic harm, and must be protected from yourself.
So, since we know best, and you aren’t educated, or smart enough to decide for yourselves, we’ll make that decision for you, and make it illegal for anyone to sell these potentially dangerous, devices to you, unless they have one of our licenses, and do things exactly our way.
That ladies and gentlemen distills the ‘Professional’ landscape, thrust, arguments and activities of all of the major ‘Professional Associations’ affiliated with the hearing aid industry.
This conflict has resulted in dual regulatory boards in several states. One controlled by the hearing aid specialists, the other controlled by the audiologists. Yet, the purpose of each Board, always couched in consumer protection, has been, and is, the control of who can sell a hearing aid, to whom, and under what conditions.
With the audiology, and academic community on one side, arguing, lobbying, and advertising how they should be the only ones allowed to sell these dangerous devices, because of their superior years of advanced education, and subsequent degrees. In the other, proverbial corner of the ring, you have the remnants of the old market model, in the Hearing Aid Specialists.
They have been more, or less forced to accept licensing, minimal standards, protocols and regulations, as a means of survival, in the face of being lobbied out of business by the Audiologists convincing those various legislatures of how badly they need to protect their vulnerable senior populations, by passing laws that would only allow them to be the ones selling hearing aids.
And so, the battle has raged for over thirty years. Audiologists in one corner, smug in their superior education, and credentialing, and Hearing Aid Specialists in the other, ready to demonstrate their competence, by matching any Audiology Board, with their own protocols, or policy mandates, so that they can continue to be allowed to sell hearing aids, without losing their piece of this highly regulated pie.
Yet, all the while these two ‘professions’ were each going at each other, all in the name of protecting the public, everything else in their worlds, excepting their own professional perspectives, has already changed drastically.
The consumer has evolved remarkably. Expectations, aspirations and educational level of the consumer of today, isn’t that of our parents generation. Today’s consumer is apt to have more than one cell phone, a tablet, laptop, and or a desktop computer, or three. Imagine the consumer of the future’s electronic kit.
Today’s consumer is apt to be tech savvy, perhaps already using some sort of ear level gear, headset, earbuds, Bluetooth dongle etc.
Today’s consumer has instant access to not only information, but just about any product made on the planet, from personal sound amplifiers, to top end hearing aids, all simply a Google search, and a few mouse clicks away.
Today’s consumer has instant access to information about you, your practice, products, and what your patients, and others are saying about you both, unfiltered, and in real time.
Yet, both ‘Professions’ always, and continuously treat these same consumers, as though they were children, incapable of understanding what we’ve spent years learning, and therefore in need of constant protection.
So, the consumer’s ability to chose where, and how to buy their hearing aids, must be taken away from them, for their own protection. And, since these same professionals know best, anyone who does sell a hearing aid, may not do so without also selling you a list of procedures that they’ve decided, are also in your best interest, and that if not performed, will also put you at grave risk of harm.
These were, and are the arguments used across the land, to regulate the sale of hearing aids.
As you might imagine, such policies, protocols, licensing, and compliance with regulations create significant add on costs. What are known in classical economic circles as “market inefficiencies”.
Along with the evolution of consumer, proliferation of policies, protocols and regulations, has come an incredible evolution in the gear we use in the hearing aid industry.
The equipment being fit today is actually much more apt to be an ultra high speed, low drain, dual input, digital audio processing computer, complete with on board wireless connectivity, rather than the analog hearing aid defined in either textbooks, or regulations.
Capable of multiple tasks, today’s gear is only a hearing aid when programmed, sold and operated as such.
The same gear could just as easily be described, programmed, and sold as a wireless headset, dongle, or personal sound amplification product, as the regulatory language describing both, as well as the benefits they are capable of providing, may rest within the same instrument casing, creating a legal distinction, without any actual difference in the equipment.
Along with the evolution of consumer, gear, and regulations, has come a total revolution in the way things are bought, and sold, and how people interact with their products, and those selling them.
The Internet, product connectivity, and active consumer interfaces with the electronic products populating their lives, is rapidly moving from development, to general practice, as electronic ‘wearables’ from household names such as Nike, Apple, Samsung, and Google begin to appear, and compete with applications not even dreamed of ten years ago.
Along with the Internet, the traditional medical model of dispensing hearing aids was dealt another, perhaps fatal blow by a total outsider, acting as Smith’s Invisible hand acted, in a big and, unexpected way.
The worlds largest Health insurer, Unitedhealthcare, performed their own internal risk/benefit/cost analysis of the current hearing aid delivery system, and simply rejected the vast majority of evolved protocols, held so dear by both Audiological, and Hearing Aid Specialist communities.
Disqualifying every ‘professional’ provider they had previously dealt with. This insurance behemoth simply bought their own hearing aid company, and required all of their policyholders, seeking to make a claim on their “hearing aid benefit”, to deal directly with their own solely owned subsidiary HealthInnovations.
In doing so this Insurance Giant simply mandated a totally different dispensing model for the millions of people holding their policies, effectively gutting decades of evolved, and established doctrine, and regulatory policies.
Oh, no appointment needed, they do it all over the phone, or via Internet chat, with minimal actual risk to those served.
Taken together with the ongoing purchases of multiple retail dispensaries by industry leaders such as William Demant, Sonova, and others, along with the appearance of hearing aid kiosks in warehouse chains such as Costco, Sam’s club, and more, and there exists an actual situation on the ground, which is completely beyond the control of either the Audiological, or Hearing Aid Specialist communities, or their respective regulatory Boards to control.
Continuing to grasp for this lost control, through attempts to ban Internet sales, police a company twenty-two times the size of our entire industry, or prevent consumers from purchasing any electronic device that they desire, anyway they want to get it, is being demonstrated to be an activity beyond the scope, ability, or desire of most states to pursue.
The hearing aid delivery system is rapidly evolving from the old, highly controlled medical model, to a more dynamic, market driven one.
Everything has already changed, excepting our professional recognition of these facts, and the regulations being ignored by those insurance giants, and others.
Time for that serenity prayer, and a long look in the mirror about who, and what needs to be changed.
Time to stop acting like a license, or any degree, is going to impress anyone in today’s market, and start demonstrating the actual value of consumers dealing with you, and your practice.
Time to stop worrying about what the other guy, or gal down the street is, or isn’t doing.
Time to make sure that you are providing the kind of enriched consumer experience that those coming to you will enjoy, want to repeat, and tell their neighbors about, in a positive way.
Time to stop looking at what has been lost, and start looking at the opportunities being presented.
Time to stop thinking like Kodak, Borders, Blockbuster and Enron.
Time to start thinking like Nike, Netflix, Amazon, & Google.
Oh, and don’t shoot! I’m just the messenger. If, you disagree, use the space below to tell us about it.
The opportunities created by the chaos of change are incredible. How our colleagues choose to react, or respond to these changes will determine the arc of their practices, and personal careers.
But, denial is neither a river in Egypt, nor an Industry option, times have changed, and we have an industry at a crossroads.