Two recent articles in the mainstream press reflect the views of public health officials with respect to a pair of hot button issues: the hearing aid industry and the aging American population.
In a October 31 Forbes article, Jason Karlawish, MD, a physician, author, and co-director of the Penn Memory Center and the Healthy Brain Research Center, built a credible case for why the “overly consolidated and stagnant hearing aid industry”needs to be “nudged into 21st century innovation.”
In his article, Dr. Karlawish, who is a member of PCAST, posed the question, “why should we (the public with hearing loss) pay for devices that can be unsightly, poorly fitting and marginally effective?”
High costs to the consumer and an oligarchic market were two of the major reasons cited for the historically poor uptake of hearing aids. He cited the recent PCAST recommendations of “thoughtful and low-cost adjustments to regulations that can open up access and innovation in an overly consolidated market” for individuals who may desire to enhance a function, rather than correct a problem.
In a December 14 Washington Post article, public policy expert, Jan Blustein, MD, provided readers with an overview of age-related hearing loss and the current treatment options, including hearing aids, PSAPs and smartphone apps.
In perhaps what is a harbinger for the industry, Dr. Blustein wrote that the “hearing-device market is in the midst of a profound disruption that is making it easier and cheaper for people with hearing loss to get help.” She went on to mention the PCAST recommendations and the Institute of Medicine (IOM) working group, which is expected to issue a statement by the summer of 2016 on the affordability and accessibility of hearing health care.
Clinician Responds to Articles
One prominent audiologist from a large medical facility, who chose not to have her name mentioned, shared the following comments about the two articles:
“The views of the authors on the problem of hearing loss and the simplicity of treatment are naive at best. Most older adults have some degree of hearing loss, but choose not to pursue treatment because they feel their hearing loss is not impacting them enough to do anything about it. By the time hearing loss has progressed to the point where people want hearing aids, their needs are generally greater than can be addressed by over-the-counter (OTC) devices. The idea that people can try out OTC devices and then move on to traditional hearing aids, if their needs are not addressed, seems predatory. It is going to be expensive for the patient who will have wasted several hundreds of dollars on OTCs that didn’t work when they should have received appropriate care to begin with.”
Despite “Disruption”, Growth Continues
As public policy experts offer guidance and opinions on hearing healthcare issues — and, as opinions within the hearing care industry continue to differ — the traditional hearing aid market saw a marked increase in year-over-year sales for November. According to well-respected industry analysts, the U.S. private hearing aid market grew in 9% November, and is projected to increase by 7% for the full year. The American VA system is seeing somewhat flatter growth, estimated at 5% for 2015.
Relative to the recent Forbes and Washington Post reports, investment experts paint a rosier picture of the current industry. They project that the fitting and adjustment of hearing aids will remain critical to successful use of the devices, which means a required visit to a qualified audiologist or hearing instrument dispenser.
Experts also project the Internet will improve price transparency for consumers as well as increasing their ability to research their options. These factors may lead to faster growth of store-in-store options and so-called Big-Box retail, and may spell the further erosion of the independent channel.
*featured image courtesy flickr