This issue of The Hearing Review features the annual HR Dispenser Survey. This year’s survey results reflect the dispensing activities of about 200 hearing care practices/offices in the US and its territories. Among the many interesting items in the survey are these facts:

  • Although corporate retail chain networks continue to make gains, the independent hearing care professional/entrepreneur still dominates the dispensing landscape. Almost three-quarters (74%) of offices/businesses responding to the survey had no network affiliations or were otherwise affiliated with an independent national network or co-op buying group.
  • While tensions between the dispensing groups flare up sporadically, the fact is that about one in five hearing health care offices in the US features hearing instrument specialists and audiologists working side by side. In this year’s survey, for example, almost one-quarter (24.2%) of all practices owned by dispensing audiologists employed a hearing instrument specialist.
  • More than 70% of hearing care practices offer 2-6 brands of hearing instruments; however, 72% of all hearing instruments dispensed from the average office comes from one brand.
  • Directional hearing aids now make up 22% of all hearing aid fittings.
  • Eighty percent of all dispensing professionals are online—up from 69% last year.
  • While the prices of most hearing aid technologies and models decreased, the increasing popularity and demand for more expensive digital instruments propped up the average sales price of a hearing aid, as well as the gross revenues of dispensing professionals.
  • The percentage of new customers who were first-time users in 2001 continues to be a disappointingly low 45% (ie, the same as in 2000).

This last point has a remarkable side statistic to it. When you consider the number of hearing instruments purchased in 1983, then factor in the monaural/binaural usage rates (ie, 73% vs 27%) of that era, the result is that 891,000 people purchased a hearing aid in that year. The first-time user rate in 1983 was 75.6%. Thus, there were a total of 673,000 first-time users in 1983. Using this same method, and applying it to the 1.93 million hearing aids sold in 2001 (along with the monaural/binaural fitting rate of 29% vs 71%), it yields 1.24 million new users. Unfortunately, the 45% first-time user rate means we had only 560,000 first-time users in 2001. In other words, almost 2 decades ago, there were more than 110,000 more first-time users of hearing aids per year than there are today. That’s patently disgusting in an age when we are supposed to be more attuned to health care matters and more proactive in helping remediate disabilities.

The sad fact is that the days are over when the industry can expect to benefit from ever-increasing binaural fitting rates; binaural fittings have reached a level where they probably won’t rise much further. At the same time, hearing instrument prices are starting to decline, and some hearing care offices are feeling the pinch. Here’s the bottom line of this year’s dispenser survey: If there was ever a time for some innovative thinking and/or a concerted marketing effort that will get new, first-time users into the offices/practices of hearing care professionals, it’s now!

Karl Strom