The number of hearing device patents granted annually to the Big 6 manufacturers tripled in the last decade (see feature image above), peaking in 2012 and leveling off since then, by Hearing Economic’s estimation.1   The 2012 peak is mainly due to a flurry of patents awarded to Siemens (now Sivantos) that year.  

Fig 1. Patent activity status of Big 6 hearing aid manufacturers as of 12/31/2016

Sivantos holds the most US patents (Figure 1) but has had fewer patents published each year since 2012 (34 in 2016, 116 in 2012).  The other five companies have stayed steady (Phonak/Sonova) or grown (GN Resound, Oticon, Starkey, Widex) on this metric since then.  Figure 1 summarizes each company’s total patent status at the time of writing.  

In short, everybody’s in the game, holding their own, and that’s not even counting the patent portfolio held through K/S HIMPP for the US and other world markets.  It’s good news as the US healthcare industry enters uncertain territory along with the US hearing device market in 2017. 

 

 

 

The List for December 2016

 

Description

Patent Number

Assignee

Issued

Hearing aid device using dual electromechanical vibrator

9510115

Oticon Medical A/S (Smorum, DK)

11/29/2016

Combined functional component and implantable actuator positioning mechanism

9516433

Cochlear Limited (Macquarie University, NSW, AU)

12/06/2016

Medical device coupling arrangement

9516434

Cochlear Limited (Macquarie University, NSW, AU)

12/06/2016

Hearing Aid Adapter for Easy Conversion of Open Ear to Closed Ear Fitting

9516435

Johnson Hearing Technology and Communication, PLLC (Johnson City, TN)

12/06/2016

Hearing Aid Fitting System and a Method of Fitting a Hearing Aid System

9516438 & 9516439

Widex A/S (Lynge, Denmark)

12/06/2016

Transducer Comprising Moisture Transporting Element

9516437

Sonion Nederland BV (Hoofddorp, Netherlands)

12/06/2016

Modular biomedical implants

9511216

Advanced Bionics AG (Staefa, Switzerland)

12/06/2016

Hearing System Comprising an Auditory Prosthesis Device and a Hearing Aid

9511225

Advanced Bionics AG (Staefa, Switzerland)

12/06/2016

Spatial Enhancement Mode for Hearing Aids

9516431

Starkey Laboratories, Inc. (Eden Prairie, MN)

12/06/2016

Hearing Aid Topshell

D773671

Oticon A/S (Smorum, Denmark)

12/06/2016

Binaural hearing assistance system comprising binaural noise reduction

9516430

Oticon A/S (Smorum, Denmark)

12/06/2016

Hearing Aid and Method for Controlling Hearing Aid

9516429

Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. (Suwon-si, South Korea)

12/06/2016

Binaural hearing instrument and earpiece

9516436

Sivantos PTE. Ltd. (Singapore, SG)

12/06/2016

Transducer Impedance Measurement for Hearing Aid

9521493

Envoy Medical Corp (St. Paul, Minn)

12/13/2016

CIC Hearing Aid Seal and Method of Manufacturing the Same

9521495

Sonova AG (Stafa, Switzerland)

12/13/2016

Antenna device for hearing instruments and a hearing instrument

9521494

Sivantos PTE. Ltd. (Singapore, SG)

12/13/2016

Speaker-Oriented Hearing Aid Function Provision Method and Apparatus

9525951

Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. (Suwon-si, South Korea)

12/20/2016

Method of Operating a Hearing Aid and a Hearing Aid

9525950

Widex A/S (Lynge, Denmark)

12/20/2016

Modified electrode lead for cochlear implants

9522268

Med-El Elektromedizinische Geraete GmbH (Innsbruck, AT)

12/20/2016

Body worn sound processors with directional microphone apparatus

9532151

Advanced Bionics AG (Staefa, Switzerland)

12/27/2016

Method of Operating a Hearing Aid and a Hearing Aid

9532148

Widex A/S (Lynge, Denmark)

12/27/2016

Method of Signal Processing in a Hearing Aid System and a Hearing Aid System

9532149

Widex A/S (Lynge, Denmark)

12/27/2016

Method and Apparatus for Testing Binaural Hearing Aid Function

9532146

Starkey Laboratories, Inc. (Eden Prairie, MN)

12/27/2016

System for Detection of Special Environments for Hearing Assistance Devices

9532147

Starkey Laboratories, Inc. (Eden Prairie, MN)

12/27/2016

Interface Unit for Hearing Aids

D775358

GN ReSound A/S (Ballerup, DK)

12/27/2016

Self-Fitting of a Hearing Device

9532152

iHear Medical Inc. (San Leandro, CA)

12/27/2016

Systems, Devices, Components and Methods for Improved Acoustic Coupling between a Bone Conduction Hearing Device and a Patient’s Head or Skull

9526810

Sophono Inc. (Boulder, CO)

12/27/2016

Electronic Device for Providing Information to User

9530399

Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. (Suwon-si, KR)

12/27/2016

Method and Apparatus for Customizing Audio Signal Processing for a User

9532154

Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. (Suwon-si, KR)

12/27/2016

 

Editor’s note:  The Patent Series is updated monthly now, and every two months in the past.  Click links for patents approved in November 2016,  October 2016Sept 2016,  Jul/Aug 2016,  May/Jun 2016Mar/Apr 2016Jan/Feb 2016,  Nov/Dec 2015, Sept/Oct 2015,  Jul/Aug 2015, May/Jun 2015,  Mar/Apr 2015Jan/Feb 2015,  Nov/Dec 2014,  Sep/Oct 2014,  July/Aug 2014,  May/Jun 2014,  Mar/Apr 2014,  Jan/Feb 2014Nov/Dec 2013September/October 2013Jul/Aug 2013May/Jun 2013Mar/Apr 2013Jan/Feb 2013Nov/Dec 2012

Last week’s post described a world of audiology in which median wage has increased by $2100/year on average for the last 15 years, yet the audiology workforce has remained flat.  This scenario, shown in the feature image above, is alarming.  Moreover, it is unusual.  Other healthcare professions don’t roll like this.  Today’s post looks at labor forces of audiology and other healthcare professions and speculates on what’s up with audiology.

 

Supply and Demand of Labor Economics

 

Figure 1. Current median wages for work forces by profession. (Source OES databases, Bureau of Labor Statistics).

It is easier to think of Supply and Demand as  “Willingness to Work” (WtW)  and “Willingness to Pay” (WtP) functions when thinking about the labor market.  Consider Figure 1 for healthcare workers’  2015 median wages. In each profession,  50% of its labor force is Willing to Work at or below the median wage indicated.  The other 50% is Unwilling to Work unless the wage is that amount or higher.  WtW determines Supply of labor.  Supply is a positive-sloped function because workers will work more for higher wages.

Figure 1’s data reflect employed individuals, meaning that their employers have demonstrated a Willingness to Pay according to these schedules: some pay higher, some pay lower, but the median wage is most commonly paid.  WtP determines Demand for labor.  Demand is a negatively sloped function because employers will hire more workers at lower wages.

Thus, for purposes of the present discussion, the median wage can be thought of as the equilibrium point (aka market clearing point) of Supply and Demand for each profession.  Note that WtP is not that of the consumer, but of the employer.  It is possible to have a temporary consumer shortage, as forecast by Windmill and Freeman,  if employers’ WtP is less than the wage needed to expand a work force

Figure 1 shows that in 2015, the market clearing point for audiologists  is $5,000, $10,000 and $30,000 less in annual wage, respectively, than the clearing points for physical therapists, occupational therapists and optometrists.  All other things being equal, it is probably fair to say that people in those three professions chose them over audiology at least in part because they were unwilling to work for the lower audiology wage.

 

On the Supply Side, How Much Is Enough?

 

All other things are not equal, including opportunity costs of education in different professions.  College education time, including four years of undergraduate education, for audiologists is usually 8 years, equivalent to the education years of optometrists.  Opportunity cost is less for PTs, who graduate in seven years, and lower yet for OTs, who only need six years of college.  By contrast, psychologists are the lowest paid doctoral level professionals in Fig 1 but require the most education time (8-12 years).  The value of other factors (e.g.,  graduate school acceptance rate, job satisfaction, intellectual stimulation, client relationships, academic prestige, employment opportunities) may trump other opportunity cost considerations for some who chose counseling fields such as psychology or audiology.1  

Fig 3. Percentage change in professional work forces from 2012-2015.  (Source OES databases, Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Despite consistent annual wage gains and a fair-to-middling median wage for audiologists, it is clear from the data in Figure 2 that opportunity costs for audiology lack appeal for many.  For whatever their reasons, workers in healthcare consistently eschew audiology in favor of careers in other licensed healthcare professions.  Of the five career examples shown, none have a negative labor growth rate except audiology.  

Figures 1 and 2 give hints about “How much would be enough?” on the Supply side.  For instance:

  • Audiology vs Occupational Therapy:  OT is a Masters level profession, but it requires two years less spent on education and offers $5000 more in annual income. Would that combination entice more people to a career in Audiology,or would the almost-inevitable loss of “doctor” after one’s name pose too high an opportunity cost?
  • Audiology vs Physical Therapy:  Both are doctoring professions so the calculation is more straight-forward.  One year less education and $10K more in median wage might be enough, holding other factors constant.
  • Audiology vs Optometry: Boosting audiology’s median annual wage by $30K would bring wage equivalency to these two doctoring professions that each require 8 years schooling.

 

On the Demand Side, How Low Can You Go?

 

This discussion of the audiology labor market has not taken substitutes into account.    The “Ask an Audiologist” campaign requires consumers to prefer audiologists over all other available choices. But demand for substitute choices increases when audiologists become scarce or too costly, which is why shortages are temporary as the market seeks out means of reaching equilibrium.   Windmill and Freeman warned of economic substitutes:

“Unless strategies are put in place to enable audiology to meet the demand, it is possible that alternative delivery systems for hearing care could evolve.”

Hearing aid specialists (see Figure 1) are one such labor substitute. They’re Willing to Work for substantially less than other licensed healthcare professionals and their numbers are growing.   Next post in this series will look at overlapping Supply and Demand for audiologists and hearing aid specialists in today’s market.

 

Footnotes

 

1I know of no data to support this speculation, but it is a good topic for student research and results might prove useful in backing up the “Demand an Audiologist” value statement.

 

References

 

Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational employment statistics, OES databases (2000 through May 2015). United States Department of Labor.

Windmill IM & Freeman BA.  Demand for audiology services: 30-yr projections and impact on academic programs.  JAAA 24:407-416 (2013).