A new investigation into hearing aids by Consumer Reports, Yonkers, NY, has found that consumers pay high prices and get mediocre fittings. The new report—the first such report on hearing aids since 1992—offers a comprehensive guide to purchasing and owning a hearing aid, says the nonprofit organization.

The report, to be published in the July issue of Consumer Reports and online at www.ConsumerReportsHealth.org, provides a step-by-step guide to purchasing and owning a hearing aid. For its report, Consumer Reports followed a dozen hearing-impaired patients for 6 months as they shopped for and used hearing aids; lab-tested the features of 44 hearing aids; and conducted a national survey of 1,100 people who had bought a hearing aid in the last 3 years. The survey was conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.

Consumer Reports’ shoppers purchased two pairs of hearing aids each, or 48 aids in all, ranging from $1,800 to $6,800 per pair, including professional fitting and follow-up services, in the New York City metropolitan area, says the organization, adding that the right fit did not come easily. Consumer Reports had audiologists check to see how well providers fit shoppers’ hearing aids to their individual hearing loss, and found that: two-thirds of the 48 aids purchased were misfit—they amplified too little or too much. And yet, according to the national survey, a resounding 73% of hearing aid users were highly satisfied with their aids, suggesting many individuals may be so pleased with improved hearing that they do not seek out fine tuning of their aids, potentially missing out on an even better fit, says the organization.

The survey also underscored the lack of information that’s reaching consumers about which features are valuable and which are not. One-fourth of respondents said they didn’t know whether their aids had feedback suppression, and a third didn’t know whether they had directional microphones, says the organization, noting that both features can be critical to performance.

“Buying a hearing aid is not for the faint of heart. And it’s not like buying a piece of electronics and walking away. In addition to purchasing the hearing aids, you’re purchasing a service that comes with a complicated contract and you’re entering into a relationship with a provider, so you need to be comfortable with that person. And to get the best results, you have to take the time to adjust to the aids and let your provider know about any problems,” said Tobie Stanger, senior editor, Consumer Reports, according to an account of the matter published on Consumer Reports’ Web site.

Consumers need to decide which type of hearing aid is best for them, and which product features make sense, keeping in mind that many features can add a lot of cost but may be of little value to some people, says the organization.

Consumer Reports offers the following advice:

Where to go. Veterans should try the nearest Veterans Affairs (VA) facility, rated highly by survey respondents who went to the VA, and where veterans may be able to get their hearing aids for virtually free. Others should first consider a medical practice headed by an otolaryngologist who employs an audiologist to fit and dispense hearing aids. About one in five survey respondents got their hearing aids from a doctor’s office, which received higher marks than brand name stores and independent free standing stores, by hearing aid users.

What to expect from a provider. Providers should offer a choice of several brands, styles, and features; convenient hours; walk-in repairs; a soundproof booth to test an individual’s hearing; and several types of hearing tests. Rehab classes or therapy after fitting should be available, as well as a flexible trial period and a money-back guarantee. Make sure in advance that the provider will conduct a real-ear test, which measures the match between a person’s hearing loss and the response of the person’s hearing aid, during the fitting process. 

At the first visit. Get a thorough evaluation. The provider should conduct several tests to establish a hearing-loss profile, including an audiometry test in a soundproof both.  Consumers should discuss their needs and lifestyles.

  • When considering hearing aids, Consumer Reports advises shoppers to focus on product features, not brands. Although there are differences between brands, they’re not significant enough to identify “best brands,”  according to Consumer Reports. Consumer Reports recommends asking about these features: a telecoil, which amplifies sound from phones without picking up background noise; a directional microphone, which helps hearing-aid wearers converse in noisy settings; and feedback suppression, which quells squeals when a hearing aid is too close to a phone or has a loose-fitting earmold.

Be a smart buyer. Consumer Reports verified the wholesale price of several of the hearing aids tested, finding on average a markup of 117%. “This means that there is room to bargain,” Stanger says. Only 15% of survey participants tried that, but more than 40% of those who tried succeeded, according to the survey.

  • Before leaving with their new aids, consumers should practice inserting and removing the battery, cleaning and storing the aid, putting it in their ear, using the switches and controls, and talking on the phone. Most of Consumer Reports’ shoppers received no telephone training or help with volume controls. In addition, be sure to review the product manual, warranty, trial period, and return and repair policies before leaving.

At home. Adjusting to a new pair of hearing aids can take quite a while. Consumer Reports notes that individuals can join a support group with other hearing-aid consumers during this period of adjustment and beyond. In addition, practice using the hearing aids in different environments. Consumers should return to their provider for at least one follow-up appointment. Twenty-six percent of survey respondents never had a follow-up appointment, even though most providers include that service in their fee. Dissatisfied consumers shouldn’t just leave their aids in a drawer and forget about them.

Survey Methodology  
In February 2009 members of an online respondent panel were invited to participate in a survey designed by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. The survey targeted individuals who purchased a newly fitted prescription hearing aid no more than 3 years ago and no less than 3 months ago. A total of 1,100 respondents, with 66 years old being the mean respondent age, completed the survey. 

Consumer Reports® is published by Consumers Union, an independent nonprofit organization, it says. To maintain its independence and impartiality, Consumers Union accepts no outside advertising, no free test samples, and has no agenda other than the interests of consumers, the organization says. Consumers Union supports itself through the sale of its information products and services, individual contributions, and a few noncommercial grants.

[Source: Consumer Reports]