Although I never met Bob Edgell, I do know him from his body of work as the editor and publisher of the now-defunct Hearing Dealer magazine of the 1950s and 1960s. He was a predecessor of my esteemed mentor, Marjorie Skafte (the magazine was renamed Hearing Instruments at Skafte’s urging in 1973) and was also a close friend of HR Founder Lars Fladmark. As I’ve combed through back-issues of hearing aid magazines, I’ve developed a great respect for Edgell’s insights, and I think his article, “What’s the Outlook for “56”, from the January 1956 Hearing Dealer provides a fun “Then versus Now” look at the hearing industry.

THEN: Political Landscape. Edgell wrote: “Few of those [industry leaders] queried think a formal decision by President Eisenhower not to run again or a GOP defeat in November would do lasting harm to business, although either could cause temporary reactions…” Eisenhower beat Stevenson handily in November 1956, but as Edgell predicted, it didn’t appear to have any major ramifications for the hearing industry.

NOW: Political Landscape. One of the biggest stories in 2006 was the Democratic takeover of Congress, but it does not appear to pose any major ramifications for hearing health care. Although Congressman Jim Ryun (R-Kan), a co-sponsor of The Hearing Aid Tax Credit Assistance Act, was not re-elected, the tax credit legislation stands as good a chance or better in the 110th Congress (see last month’s HR News).

THEN: Dispensing. The US economy was booming in the mid-50s. Under the subheading, “US Economy High,” Edgell wrote: “For the industry as a whole, total hearing aid production in 1955 was probably close to 350,000 aids, according to estimates volunteered by industry experts. In planning for 1956, most manufacturers expect ‘a good increase in sales’…The majority of those queried are counting on an industry-wide boost in sales from 10 to 15 percent—which would hike combined output up to between [sic] 375,000 to 400,000 units in 1956.” A.P. Mynders (Joel Mynder’s father) “believed more units will be sold, but that unit price per sale will drop,” and Joseph Luebbe Jr (Mary Lou Luebbe-Gearhart’s father) said he “will continue to expand their sales by offering better service.”

NOW: Dispensing. Many economists say we’re in a bull market. Hearing aid sales probably exceeded 2.3 million units in 2006, a 6.5-fold increase over 1956. Unit sales rose by about 7% in 2006, the fourth consecutive year of positive industry growth (4-7% from 2003-2006). Although it’s a good bet that robust sales will continue in 2007 (eg, in the 4-8% range), it’s not evident from where those sales are coming (eg, chain retailers vs private practices). It also appears that smaller numbers of large manufacturers are gobbling up market share. The 2006 HR Dispenser Survey suggests that prices for digital economy aids decreased by 7%, mid-range aids stayed about the same, and premium aids rose nominally (3%). Expansion of services (eg, wireless devices, vestibular and tinnitus services, value-added counseling, evidence-based practices, etc) will be hot topics in 2007 and beyond.

THEN: Technology. Under the subheading, “Vanity Vanquished”, Edgell wrote: “The big reason for the expected increase in hearing aid sales is the industry’s own technical advancements. Miniaturization and new innovations have made hearing aids less conspicuous, and vanity thereby has become far less an obstacle. These scientific developments, beginning three years ago with the introduction of hearing aid transistors, have altered the entire concept of hearing aid design…More manufacturers will come out with eyeglass aids during the year, and this type will represent a good-sized percentage of industry sales.”

NOW: Technology. Sadly, vanity is still far from being vanquished. But the industry also has witnessed a technological revolution comparable to the transistor: the rapid acceptance of digital aids, which now constitute over 90% of the market since their widespread introduction a decade ago. And digital aids have made possible the open-fit technology which HR estimates has grown from 24% of the market in the first quarter of 2006 to about 30% today. Likewise, BTEs—bolstered by the new, cosmetically appealing slim-tube/wire mini-BTEs—now make up about 43% of all hearing aids dispensed. Look for BTEs to gain almost half the market, with open-fit aids constituting more than one-third of the market, in 2007.

Karl Strom
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