How many offices are there that dispense hearing instruments in the United States, and how many professional business owners are there? One can have a lively debate on this question. For example, there are 12,349 Yellow Page listings nationwide for “hearing aids and assistive devices,” but it’s as unlikely that all of them would meet most people’s definition of a full-time office as it is that all of the offices would opt for a Yellow Pages ad. There were 12,636 total dispensing offices in 2003, according to InfoUSA. The Verizon Superpages Web site lists 17,721 entries for “hearing aid and assistive devices retail.”

The definition of a “full-time office” or even a “dispensing office” (eg, as opposed to an audiology or ENT clinic that might dispense a handful of hearing aids per year) is debatable, and the corresponding estimates on the actual “number of dispensing offices” hinges on these definitions. The HR Dispenser Survey arbitrarily defines a “dispensing office” as one that dispenses an average of one hearing aid per month or more, and a “full-time office” as one that is open 4 days or more per week. Using this definition, there were 176 full-time and 122 part-time offices that were covered in this year’s survey. These 298 total offices were owned by 138 business owners and partnerships. (Note: The maximum response for number of offices in the survey was “6+ offices,” so those businesses with more than six full-time offices (4% HIS, 0% DA) or more than six part-time offices (18% HIS, 5% DA) were still accorded only six offices respectively. Thus, the total number of offices in the survey is probably somewhat larger. It should also be noted that several dispensing practices list 0 full-time offices but instead maintain several part-time offices.) Looking at this year’s survey, there are at two ways to estimate the number of hearing aid dispensing offices/practices and professional business owners:

This year’s survey encompasses roughly 300 full-time and part-time offices that reported dispensing about 50,000 hearing aids—or 2.6% of the private sector hearing aid market according to HIA statistics. This would suggest that there are about 11,500 offices in the United States, with only 6,800 of these meeting HR’s definition of “full-time.” Again, by extrapolation from the survey statistics, there would be about 5,300 owners (and partnerships) of dispensing offices.

Using the survey percentages regarding units dispensed per month, and adjusting the number of business owners up or down to match actual private-sector sales, it would appear that there are around 6,000 business owners (and partnerships) in the private sector and about 13,000 offices.

There appear to be surprisingly few offices (11,500-13,000) and dispensing entrepreneurs (5,300-6,000) in the “hearing aid dispensing universe.” Is the hearing industry lacking in manpower and offices/practices? In my opinion, the hearing industry should have a far greater number of dispensing professionals to serve an estimated 31 million people who have a significant hearing loss. For example, compare the 11,500 to 13,000 dispensing offices with 173,000 dental practices and 38,000 optometric practices. Using an estimate of about 1.1 million patients currently being fit with hearing aids by 11,500 private sector offices, that would mean the average office sees around 100 clients per year—of which only about 40-50 are first-time hearing instrument users.

Ultimately, what is needed is more hearing awareness efforts and marketing to convince larger numbers of consumers to try amplification. And that needs to come from the hearing industry, government health centers and hearing-related organizations, dispensing offices, and the media.