StromObservations
Hearing Industries Association (HIA) statistics show that hearing aid net unit sales increased by 12.1% in the third quarter of 2003—substantially higher than expected and probably more than what the average dispensing professional or manufacturer witnessed. However, even after considering factors that might have led to inflated growth figures (eg, new IHS members reporting, an uptick in VA unit sales, etc), the fact remains that we experienced a healthy increase in sales that can only be taken as good news. After 3 years of flat growth, an extended period of strong sales would be a boon to everyone. Most impressive, digital hearing aids represented 68.8% of all the units dispensed in the third quarter—up from 44.6% for the year in 2002. As Executive Director of HIA Carole Rogin says, we’ve never found a reliable economic indicator that can be used to predict future hearing aid sales; however, hearing aid sales often seem to be a pretty reliable indicator of future economic conditions.

• Passings. The hearing care field lost a brilliant researcher, educator, and clinician when Michael K. Wynne, PhD, died unexpectedly in October after a brave struggle against a rare illness. Dr. Wynne was an associate professor at Indiana University School of Medicine and Purdue University, and was a leading expert on sudden hearing loss, as well as on topics related to pediatric audiology and congenital hearing loss. He gave his time unselfishly, lecturing and writing papers, serving as the editor of journals, and he was developing a conference on the genetics of hearing loss. He will be greatly missed.

• The OTC Debate Continues. I received many emails regarding last month’s editorial (“Petitions for Pragmatism?”, page 10) that dealt with Over-the-Counter (OTC) hearing aids and the FDA Citizen’s Petitions filed recently by Gail Gudmundsen, AuD, and Mead Killion, PhD. In a nutshell, the point of the editorial was that the Citizen’s Petitions raised good, timely questions because: 1) the hearing care field has few options available for entry-level (read younger, milder-loss) consumers who want to try amplification without a substantial expenditure of time and money; 2) the dispensing professions might be wise to at least consider a cradle-to-grave approach relative to product and market segmentation, and 3) OTC hearing aids essentially exist now in the form of Internet and mail-order hearing aids (ie, these aids accounted for 3.5% of all hearing aids sold in Y2000, an 83% increase compared to 1997) that do not contain any information about the value of professional services, and we ignore these sales and packaging/labeling problems at our own peril.

Admittedly, I don’t like the idea of OTC hearing aids, but I do believe that this new classification might represent a pragmatic solution to the burgeoning number of hearing aids (ie, probably more than 100,000 units this year) dispensed outside the professional channel—if the issue of consumer information and packaging is adequately dealt with. In a nutshell, I got some rather strongly worded emails, with most pointing out good reasons why we should not have an OTC classification, and a few intimating that I’m simply being a bonehead on this issue. Due to HR’s publication schedule, it was not possible to publish the letters this month, but we will publish a representative sample of them in the next 2 months. In the interest of fairness and “equal time,” we will also feature an article from a noted dispensing professional who opposes the OTC classification. The time and location of my public burning-at-the-stake will be announced in a later edition and will be covered live by CNN. In all seriousness, thanks to everyone who took the time to share their observations (even the stinging ones), and please keep them coming. I believe that I’ve responded personally to each letter, and in every case so far, the subsequent discussions have been good-spirited, informative, and very engaging. As always, we look forward to your comments.

Karl Strom
Editor-In-Chief