On June 20, Hearing Tracker published a thought-provoking survey. The focus of the survey was hearing aid prices. Abram Bailey, AuD, founder of Hearing Tracker and one of the creators of this survey, agreed to an interview with HHTM.
Readers can view the survey here.
BT: Hello, Abram. Thanks for your time today. You posted on your website that the survey was the combined efforts of Hearing Tracker, Katherine Bouton, and the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA). The survey consisted of over 2000 responses, from respondents across every US state, primarily consisting of HLAA members. You also reported that over half of the survey responses were from hearing aid users in the 55-74 age range.
Tell us about the impetus for the survey.
AB: Katherine Bouton, a hearing loss advocate (and friend of mine), was updating her book Living Better With Hearing Loss, and wanted to add some information about the state of insurance coverage for hearing aids. She contacted me to see what I knew, and I responded saying that I wasn’t aware of any good data. This is ultimately what led us to survey our respective followers.
BT: You mention in the introduction, as a sort of disclaimer, that the survey respondents represent a unique highly-motivated group of hearing aid users. How do you think the results would have differed if there was a representative sample of “average” hearing aid users, rather than HLAA members?
AB: We haven’t made a concerted effort to compare our data to previous surveys like MarkeTrak, but my assumption is that our cohort would have more education on topics related to hearing loss and hearing technology when compared to the average hearing aid user. This could potentially lead individuals from our cohort to make better informed decisions, have different patterns of care-seeking, purchase different hearing aid brands or technology levels than the average person, etc.
BT: The results are still very illuminating and useful. One glaring finding was the price differences reported by respondents across buying locations. It’s not surprising that average prices were comparable across the traditional brick and mortar locations (e.g., ENT, local clinic, name brand store, hospital/university). It’s also not too surprising that Costco had a substantially lower price compared to the others.
What’s a little surprising to me, however, is there was only about a $150 average difference between Costco, who provides service from licensed professional, and an Internet sale where there is no face-to-face contact with a licensed provider. What do you make of that small price difference between Costco and an Internet sale?
AB: To understand the high price of internet purchased products, we need to look at the breakdown of where online purchases were made, and what products were purchased. The majority (44%) of internet purchases were made through websites like buyhear.com, hearstore.com, and ziphearing.com and the average price paid through this category was $1,748. Internet purchases over eBay and Amazon accounted for a further 33% of internet purchases; 90% of hearing aids purchased were name-brand hearing aids, and the average price paid per unit through eBay and Amazon was $593. The remainder of purchases came from sites like MDHearingAid, iHear Medical, HiHealth, etc.
BT: Similarly, the retail prices of all hearing aids were reported to between $2300 and $2674 per unit except for Rexton and Costco’s Kirkland brand, which were reported to be about $1000 less per unit. Why is there such a big difference in price between the so-called name brands compared to Rexton and Kirkland?
AB: The reason Rexton’s price was so low in our survey was because 75% of Rexton devices were purchased at Costco. The bottom line is that pricing for any brand of hearing aid carried at Costco is substantially lower, and this is something we tried to break out in our report.
BT: I know you allude to the Costco Effect in your commentary in the survey, but a number of sources are now saying Costco is primarily dispensing only premium-level technology products, even in their Kirkland brand. Can you confirm this assertion? And, how might their ability to offer only premium technology affect their competitors?
AB: Yes, since publishing the findings we have received some feedback indicating that Costco is now selling (in some cases) current-generation premium-level hearing aids. It is my understanding that some products have certain features stripped out, and that Costco does not sell certain products, like CROS aids.
Regarding your second question, my gut feeling is that people are either comfortable receiving hearing care from Costco, or they aren’t, and I’m not sure that having current technology will accelerate things that much. Costco is definitely a growing threat to competitors … I’m just not sure that having current technology will 10x that threat.
BT: Since you published the survey a month ago, what feedback have you received from clinicians and hearing aid manufacturers? How might each of these groups apply the findings of your survey?
AB: We’ve received surprisingly little feedback from hearing aid manufacturers. I know HLAA shared the survey with HIA, but so far, we haven’t heard anything back. I shared the results with a large group of clinicians and they seemed to respond positively to the findings. I believe that hearing aid manufacturers should use the data to better understand their informed customers purchasing trends. Audiologists may consider responding to this data by converting to more transparent pricing models, like unbundling.
BT: You note on the website this is the first installment in a series of surveys you plan to conduct. What’s in store for the next round of surveying?
AB: In follow–up articles we will be addressing hearing aid preference and recommendation ratings, insurance reimbursement, local service trends, and an analysis of accessory purchases.
BT: Thanks, Abram. We look forward to reading them.