Opposition mounts to direct-to-consumer sale of hearing aids

By David H. Kirkwood

The International Hearing Society (IHS) and at least two major hearing aid manufacturers have taken strong stands against the sale of hearing aids directly to consumers. As Hearing News Watch reported in posts on September 20 and October 5, two companies—hi HealthInnovations (a UnitedHealthcare company) and Audiotoniq—have announced that they will begin selling hearing aids to consumers online, along with devices that prospective purchasers can use to test their own hearing.

Their products are priced at under $1000, much less than consumers typically pay for instruments dispensed in person by a licensed audiologist or hearing instrument specialist. In addition, Best Buy has begun selling Focus Ear, a personal sound amplifier, to customers for under $500.

 

“EXTREMELY ALARMING,” SAYS IHS

In a message sent to IHS members on October 7, Kathleen Mennillo, the executive director, said it was “extremely alarming” that hi HealthInnovations plans to “provide online hearing tests, and sell hearing aids direct to consumers through the Internet without requiring any face-to-face contact with a professional.”

Mennillo assured members, most of whom are hearing instrument specialists, “that IHS is already working diligently to understand the full scope of these matters so we can determine the appropriate action.”

One of the first actions that IHS has decided to take is to place full-page ads in three hearing industry trade magazines stating, “The International Hearing Society is deeply committed and totally invested in preventing over-the-counter and internet sales of hearing aids.” The ad will also urge readers, “Please contact us to see how you can help.”

 

ReSOUND, STARKEY ALSO OPPOSED

Both ReSound and Starkey Laboratories have notified their customers in this country of their opposition to the sale of hearing aids directly to consumers. In a message dated October 6, Kim Herman, president of ReSound US, said that this development has “stirred concern among our customers.”

Herman added, “ReSound does not support the sale of hearing aids directly to consumers…We are committed to the principle that hearing aid technology is successful only when a trained professional has evaluated the hearing loss and fit a hearing solution that meets the patient’s individualized needs.”

The ReSound executive added, “The devices being promoted in the recent announcements not only circumvent the hearing professional, but will also have the unfortunate consequence of negatively impacting public perception of hearing solutions.”

Sounding a similar note, Brandon Sawalich, senior vice-president at Starkey, e-mailed customers: “Patient satisfaction with amplification is directly related to the interaction with a hearing professional, and that can’t be accomplished with a direct-to-consumer strategy. Starkey does not support the recent activities related to direct-to-consumer sales of stock amplification by Best Buy and UnitedHealthcare.

He added, “As most of you know, the concept of selling cheap stock amplification directly to the consumer is not a new one. This approach provides poor solutions for consumers, who will not be happy with their purchase decision.”

 

COMPANIES SEE CONSUMER BENEFIT

hi HealthInnovations and Audiotoniq insist that their new products will be good for consumers with hearing loss, especially people who have refused to get hearing help through the normal channels. By making it easier and less expensive to get hearing aids, the companies say that direct-to-consumer distribution will help address the problem of the underutilization of hearing aids.

 

WATCH FOR VIEWS ON THIS ISSUE

Starting October 19, the Hearing Views section of Hearinghealth matters.org will present a series of opinion pieces on the issue of the direct-to-consumer sale of hearing aids.


5 Comments

  1. Does Starkey’s AMP serve the same purpose as a Personal Sound Amplifier? Didn’t Phonak launch SevenHearing.com originally as a PSAP? Isn’t Beltone now offering a PSAP? Did we learn anything from Songbird Disposable’s when they first came out? Where is Crystal Ear today? Aren’t Pocket Talkers and TV Ears PSAPs?

  2. As a former staff member of IHS for 21 years, I am happy to read this article.

    All through the years I strongly discouraged mail order and Internet purchases to my consumers. I explained over and over the benefits of having the proper testing, selecting and fitting of hearing aids that should be done by a hearing healthcare professional along with follow up visits!

    I also, warned them of taking their own ear mold impressions and the “amplifiers” that appeared to be hearing aids and the dangers , such as piercing their ear drums, injuring their ear canals by forcing unfit objects into them and possible over amplification, etc.

    On TV ads they give viewers all the information about prescription drugs and then warn them of the side affects. The same should be done with hearing instruments!!!

    What is needed is to get more hearing healthcare organizations and manufacturers to join “the fight for proper hearing health care”!!! The consumer has a right to know the truth!

    So, all of the audiologist and hearing instrument specialist have to quit their competion of who is going to care for all the hearing impaired and join forces to help the consumer make the right choices by going to a professional and not trying to save money by doing it on their own!

    Quit the battle, please…I’ve seen it for too many years! Take care of the hearing impaired!!! That’s why you went into this field, right? If not…you need to get out of it!

    Alice C. Markey

  3. Go IHS, Starkey & Resound, where are the other professional organizations and companies??? I for one refuse to do business with a company that in any way supports internet or direct to consumer sales.

    1. It’s time for audiologists to take a look at the big picture of what we should be providing to our patients. For too long we have narrowly focused upon the hearing aid as our “Mecca.” It’s not. What is our purpose as audiologists? In my humble opinion, our purpose is to enhance and protect America’s hearing. This means proper needs assessment.

      Can a big insurer do what we supposedly should be doing? We should be assessing each person’s 4 receptive communication needs: Face to face, media, telecommunications and alerting….at home, at school, at work and during leisure activities. Will a hearing aid only meet all of these needs? Maybe so maybe not. If not, then we apply assistive technology and teach communication strategies. We also should be teaching people,from a very young age, how to protect themselves from loud sounds, be it from an iPod, marching band instruments, power tools, or gunshots. Can a giant health care group do this without us? I doubt it.

      We need to step away from the “HA as commodity” model. Only then will people know how valuable we are and pay us for our TIME and EXPERTISE. It’s time for every graduate program in audiology to teach future audiologists how to do proper needs assessment, verify, validate, and how to charge for their time. This needs to be done in a standardized fashion so that our profession is united in a structured approach to providing hearing enhancement and protection services that are not only affordable to the patient, but also appropriately profitable to the practitioner. It’s our inability to do this that has caused others to step in. If we did our jobs correctly, there would be no returned hearing aids, except in rare cases.

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