Karl Strom

With UnitedHealth (UNH) Group’s entry into the hearing aid market by leveraging their considerable access to physicians and At-home hearing test at www.hihealthinnovations.com, it brings the inevitable anxious question: “What does this mean for my business?” UNH is a behemoth even among health insurance giants, serving approximately 70 million people nationwide and posting a net income of $4.6 billion in 2010 (see HR online news and the interview with hi HealthInnovations CEO Lisa Tseng, MD).

However, I believe—when the dust settles—it will become clear that all direct-to-consumer hearing aid companies face certain obstacles in capturing the most-valuable parts of the hearing care market. These obstacles include personalized fitting, programming, and verification/validation to achieve acceptable customer satisfaction levels; appropriate hearing testing and counseling relative to hearing loss and hearing aid use; state-by-state and federal dispensing requirements, etc. We’ve all heard the overused comparisons of direct-mail hearing aids and personal sound amplification devices (PSAPs) to “cheater glasses” in the optical industry, but allow me to point out three other important (and possibly overused) phrases:

  • Hearing aids really are only one component in the aural (re)habilitation process;
  • You don’t fit hearing aids on an audiogram; you fit them on a variety of people with vastly different physical, social, and environmental needs;
  • Most hearing losses are sensorineural in nature, and people don’t actually hear with their ears; they hear with their brains.

Indeed, HR has published many articles that point to a need for more procedures (not fewer) and comprehensive protocols that ensure optimal fittings and hearing aid utility, reduction of hearing handicap, and increased levels of customer satisfaction (eg, see the April 2010 article by Kochkin, Beck, Christensen, Compton-Conley, et al). Likewise, it’s also apparent that hearing loss isn’t an isolated health issue, as demonstrated in this month’s intriguing—dare I say landmark—study from Kochkin, Tyler, and Born on tinnitus and hearing aids.

The fact is that direct-mail, OTC, and Internet hearing aids/PSAPs—along with self-tests and self-fitting devices—have been around for many years in different forms, and we can debate (and have debated) their relative value and merit. While “DIY hearing health” is growing slowly in market share, most of these companies can only be described (so far) as having “limited commercial success.” It’s not for lack of trying. The bottom line is this: their largest obstacle (again, so far) in making a significant impact on the hearing industry and/or your business is top-notch patient care.

And quality patient care necessarily comes with a higher price tag for the multitude of services provided, as pointed out in the article by Ron Leavitt, AuD, and colleagues (go to article). In fact, Leavitt et al put forth this “astounding” proposition: you should always put the consumer first, practice what you were trained to do, provide comprehensive services, and charge appropriately for your excellent work in helping people overcome their hearing loss.

Welcome to hearinghealthmatters.org! HR is very proud and excited to announce our first-ever regular column—a collaboration between this magazine and hearinghealthmatters.org (HHM), an exceptional blog started in April by 20-year-veteran trade magazine editor (and, until recently, HR‘s arch-rival) David Kirkwood, as well as Holly-Hosford Dunn, PhD, and several amazing researchers and experts in our field (including HR Editorial Advisory Board Members Marshall Chasin, AuD, and Wayne Staab, PhD). Our BlogPage column will appear each month as the “last say” (back page) in this publication, and HHM and HR hope that you will visit The Blogs at HHM and at hearingreview.com to contribute your own ideas and opinions there.

Karl Strom,