Dennis ROyDennis Roy, VP sales and marketing, Symphonix

The area of middle ear implants (MEIs) is no longer a “technology of the future”; it now represents a currently available hearing device category. Symphonix, San Jose, Calif, is now marketing one of the first implantable hearing aids, the Vibrant Soundbridge. HR talked with Symphonix vice president of sales and marketing Dennis Roy about this new product class, as well as what he sees in the future for MEIs.

Q. How many Vibrant Soundbridge implants have been performed?

A: To date, we have done approximately 800 worldwide. The product has been in Europe since 1998. We have had FDA approval for it in the US since late 2000.

Q. What kind of market growth do you see for the Vibrant implant and the MEI device category in general during the next 10 years?

A: A lot depends on the area of reimbursement coverage. Right now, the challenge facing the implant category, in addition to the cost of the device, is the cost of the surgery to get the product implanted. However, to this point we have had around 20 insurance companies provide coverage for this product, which is a major marketing tool for us.

Q. What are the main reasons that a person opts for a middle ear implant (MEI) as opposed to a hearing aid?

A: The most important reason is that there are things an implant does that an acoustic hearing instrument cannot do. An implant is surgically installed in the middle ear. With a traditional hearing aid, the instrument blocks the ear canal. So, when the wearer has an implant, there is more comfort due to that open ear canal, and it can eliminate occlusion or the perception of a person’s voice being inside a barrel. Another advantage is the virtual elimination of feedback. With the middle ear implant, we don’t have an acoustic speaker or receiver, but instead have an electromagnetic transducer. The other thing is the separation between the receiver and the microphone. Our receiver is all the way on the other side of the tympanic membrane, and the microphone is on an external device in back of the ear. There is what we call reverse transfer: when we vibrate the ossicular chain, the tympanic membrane actually serves as a “speaker,” with sound coming from the ear canal.

Q. Why should hearing care professionals be interested in MEIs?

A: Patient satisfaction is the main reason, and this issue is the biggest continuing barrier to the hearing industry. If you look at the latest Knowles MarkeTrak research [see December 2001 HR], the percentage of hearing instrument wearers who had purchased an aid in the previous year and are satisfied with the product is still only 63%. That is about the same percentage of satified people in 1991. So, while the industry itself has clearly made great strides with programmable technology, digital technology, and directional microphone technology, it does not appear on the surface that these have significantly impacted customer satisfaction.

Q. What is the first step in getting involved in the management of these types of devices?

A: The first step is to call us, and we have a field sales network that goes out to visit the practice and present the product and the information to them. The technology tends to be a new concept for most dispensing professionals—especially in a field where acoustic technology is king, and pracitioners have worked their whole lives dealing with acoustic hearing instruments. The programming of this device, however, is no more complex than the programming of a traditional hearing aid. Patients and dispensing professionals tend to have a lot of questions about this product. We have 50 surgeons that are trained in all aspects of this product.

—B. Van Houten