By David H. Kirkwood
Action on Hearing Loss, a non-profit private organization in the United Kingdom, is about to embark on a public service program that I fInd of great interest. I think you will too, if you either treat people with hearing loss or have a hearing loss yourself.
This year, Action on Hearing Loss marked 100 years of providing support and care for people with hearing loss, educating those at risk of damaging their hearing, and raising awareness of how isolating hearing loss can be. As part of its centennial celebration, the organization changed its name from the Royal National Institute for Deaf People to the more dynamic Action on Hearing Loss.
Its first action of 2012 will be to launch a web site. There, consumers of hearing care will be invited to rate the quality of the services they received. The primary goal of the site is to help consumers identify an audiologist or dispenser in their area whose patients think well of him or her. But a second benefit will be to providers, who will get a better understanding of how their patients really feel about them.
A BETTER APPROACH
Action on Hearing Loss’s hearing professional rating mechanism is not unprecedented. While I don’t know what exists in Britain, a number of companies offer online ratings in the U.S. For example, consumers can find audiologists rated on Angie’s List. In New York City alone, 54 are listed. I’ve also seen patient assessments of hearing professionals on Yelp, Vitals, and Consumers Checkbook.
However, it seems to me that an organization such as Action on Hearing Loss has some obvious advantages over other rating web sites. One is its long-established and excellent reputation for dedicated service to people with hearing loss. That reputation makes it the logical place for consumers in the UK to go for information on local hearing care providers–or to rate their own provider. As a result, Action on Hearing Loss has a better chance than other entities of attracting the large number of participants that will be needed to make its ratings meaningful. That’s critical, because if a practitioner’s rating represents only a handful of consumer assessments, it’s not going to be very credible or helpful.
Another advantage this program has over some commercial ones is that there is no charge to use it. True, a small registration fee shouldn’t discourage a prospective hearing aid wearer from seeking information from other consumers. But the fact is, most people are so reluctant to get the hearing help they need, they will use any excuse not to take the next step toward getting help—including the minimal cost of doing “research.”
RISKS EXIST, BUT SO DO SAFEGUARDS
There are inherent risks in all online review sites. One is that they are vulnerable to spurious comments, posted by people connected with the business or person being rated or by non-existent “customers” with made-up names and experiences. However, by requiring people to register and provide identifying information before they can review a practice, Action on Hearing Loss hopes to minimize the number of dishonest posts. It will also remove offensive comments.
Another problem when it comes to rating sophisticated services such as audiologic assessments and hearing aid fittings is that it may be difficult for consumers, especially inexperienced ones, to assess a practitioner’s skills fairly and accurately.
The British group addresses that issue by providing prospective reviewers with a thorough and thoughtful guide, entitled “What should I expect from a hearing service provider?”
It has common-sense advice such as:
- “You should be able to arrange a quick hearing check or a full hearing test with ease, at a time and place that are convenient for you.”
- “Staff should tell you in advance what will happen during the visit and… explain what they’re doing at each stage and give you opportunities to ask questions.”
- “You should receive all the information you need to make the right choices – in a way that’s easy to follow and right for you.”
- “You should feel relaxed and comfortable, not rushed or pressured.”
You can read the whole document online.
WHAT DO PRACTITIONERS WANT?
While I have not heard how British hearing care providers feel about this impending rating system, I imagine a lot of them are not too happy. People in any profession may dislike the idea of having their performance rated and publicly commented on, especially by judges who are short on expertise or objectivity. On the other hand, practitioners who believe they offer superior services may view this as a great opportunity to make the world aware of them.
In the UK, where most hearing professionals work for the National Health Service and provide heavily subsidized products and services, the growing minority of private practitioners may welcome a rating mechanism as a way of proving to consumers that it’s worth paying more to get a higher level of care.
In the end, what hearing professionals want or don’t want probably won’t make much difference. For better or worse, the trend toward online ratings by consumers is growing rapidly. So, if audiologists and hearing instrument specialists are going to be subject to review sites, they can at least try to make sure that they are well designed.
WHAT ABOUT OVER HERE?
To date, I don’t think that Angie’s list or any other rating site has emerged as the go-to place for finding a great hearing professional in your town. So, I think people who care about the quality of hearing health on this side of the Atlantic—in the U.S. and in Canada—should watch with interest how Action on Hearing Loss’s pioneering program fares.
If it’s as successful as I think it may be, I hope some organization—the Hearing Loss Association of America is an obvious candidate—will take advantage of the lessons learned in the UK and provide hard-of-hearing consumers in North America with a similar resource.