By Angela Loavenbruck, Ed.D.
Commoditization is one of those words you suddenly realize you are hearing over and over in convention presentations, white papers, letters to the editor and other commentary. Commoditization refers to the process by which buyers of products and services reduce their buying decision to price alone.
Audiology is most certainly not the only profession concerned about this problem.
Engineers, lawyers, architects, information specialists, radiologists, hospitalists, anesthesiologists and ER physicians are among the professions bemoaning the commoditization of their services.
Many physicians believe that the entire practice of medicine has been commoditized, as evidenced by the drastic reduction in the number of physicians entering private practice in the last 20 years.
In audiology, however, we have a special problem. Not only are we affected by the commoditization of hearing aids – we are also very much affected by the commoditization of our professional services. To paraphrase an old comedy line – everybody wants to get in on the act!
Commoditizing the Industry…
With commoditization, both products and services appear indistinguishable to consumers, and therefore they make their buying decision based on price alone.
Every hearing aid manufacturer makes essentially the same claims about its products and many are now marketing directly to consumers. I can’t count the number of times a patient has asked me whether a particular manufacturer’s hearing aid claim about eliminating background noise was true. I also can’t count the number of times I’ve tried to explain the difference between the hearing tests I administer and the ones administered by a hearing aid salesperson.
The Crabby Audiologist has often been exceedingly crabby about being referred to as a Hearing Health Professional by manufacturers, rather than as an Audiologist. We now have young audiologists spending enormous sums to get an AuD only to find themselves lumped together indiscriminately with individuals with far less education and training. And, unfortunately, we have audiologists who gladly leap into the lowest common denominator price competition by playing the discount game in their advertisements.
Who Controls Your Destiny?
Commoditization of audiology services might also be easier because many of us work in settings where we are not in control of how our services are described and delivered to patients.
A sizeable number of audiologists are employed in ENT practices or in hospital settings as part of an ENT department. As employees, they are often not permitted to discuss test results with patients; the audiologists do basic audiometric tests and then it is the physician who speaks to the patient about the test results and makes a recommendation for amplification. We have all heard of hospital settings where the ENT physicians do not permit audiologists to use the title “doctor.”
How do consumers differentiate the hearing aid related services obtained in these settings from those obtained in commercial settings?
In these settings, is the consumer able to distinguish the audiologists’ role from that of technicians?
Taking a Closer View…
In the next several posts, I’d like to examine the notion of commoditization in audiology from several vantage points, such as:
How does the recruitment and education of new audiologists contribute to the problem? Are academic programs helping students to understand the value and scope of their work in various practice settings? How do academic programs approach the notion of autonomy? Do accreditation standards include knowledge and expertise in this area? How are manufacturers influencing students and practicing audiologists? If audiologists use marketing techniques identical to those used by commercial entities, does that contribute to commoditization?
Additionally, how do licensure laws affect consumers’ perceptions of the participants in hearing health delivery systems? How does Medicare law contribute to our ability to differentiate ourselves from other providers? How can audiologists differentiate themselves to educate consumers about the value added by their unique expertise? What can our professional associations do to assist us? Are there creative innovations in our approach to audiology practice that will lead consumers to us?
I think a lot of crabbiness is about to follow…
*featured images courtesy venture beat and smallbusinesssolutions.blogs.xerox.com