Hearing instrument unit sales in the United States broke the 2 million unit mark in 2004, according to the Hearing Industries Association (HIA). Although this is excellent news, the landmark has taken a long time in coming. I remember having a conversation with an industry executive in the mid-90s during which we both agreed that the 2-million unit mark stood a good chance of being broken by the millennium. Thus, HIA Chairman and Starkey Laboratories President Jerry Ruzicka’s comments resonate with most people who follow the hearing industry: “This second million mark is an important one, but it took much too long to get here. With the help of President Reagan, the industry topped the million mark in 1983, and together we must all ensure that it is not another 2 decades for the next million.”

Amen. A sneak-peek back into HIA statistics reveals that 1983 was the year in which ITEs quickly outpaced BTEs as the most-popular style of hearing aid (moving up to 49% of the market in 1983 from 42% in 1982, and 38% in 1981), and sales grew by 175,195 units. Many of those new hearing aids were “like the one the President got” (a canal aid). The dispensing field was abuzz about topics covered in a just-released monograph by Gerald Studebaker and Fred Bess called The Vanderbilt Report, and Hearing Instruments magazine published an article by Jerry Agnew entitled “The Role of the Small Computer in Hearing Aid Fittings,” as well as a review of directional BTE aids.

A look at today’s HIA statistics reveals that digital hearing instruments increased dramatically and now make up 4 of 5 hearing aids dispensed (83% of the market in 2004, moving up from 66% in 2003, 45% in 2002, and 27% in 2001). However, despite a healthy sales increase of 7.5% over last year, the sales volume only increased by 148,956 units—about 25,000 units less than in 1983! BTEs in the last couple years have made a strong comeback, moving from 21.9% of the market in 2001 to 26.4% in 2004, and these aids are increasingly computer-programmable devices that feature directional microphone systems. Moral: The more things change, the more they seem to stay the same.

The above parallels aren’t completely fair: 1983 was a sensational growth year for the hearing industry, with total sales rising by 20.1%, so naturally unit volume increases were high. Also, there has been amazing technological advancements in the hearing industry during the last 20 years (and especially the last decade)—enough for CNN to recently name “modern hearing aids” as one of the top-25 innovations of the last 25 years. Nevertheless, Ruzicka’s comments hit the mark. Will we be forced to wait until 2027 before we hit the 3 million unit sales mark?

Some important steps toward the 3 million mark have been made recently. The “Hearing Aid Assistance Tax Credit Act” has been reintroduced by Congressman Jim Ryun, a bill that would provide $500 toward the purchase of a hearing aid once every 5 years for individuals 55 years or older, as well as those under age 18. Additionally, the Better Hearing Institute (BHI) has recently published what I believe is one of the finest consumer handouts ever made available in this field. If you are involved in the dispensing of hearing instruments, you need to look at this 28-page booklet and decide if you’d like to provide it to your clients (you can download a PDF version of the description at www.betterhearing.org/professionals).

Another obvious variable is if dispensing professionals will step-up their own advertising and hearing awareness activities on a local level. If so, they can help ensure that the 3 million mark is attained well before 2027.

Karl Strom