StromThe hearing industry in 2004 showed what may be a peek into the better days to come: a unit volume growth rate of 7.5% after nearly 4 years of flat sales; a return for credit rate of 12.4% after more than a decade of return rates that hovered around the 20% mark; and quality, differentiated product offerings that truly provide a wide array of options for today’s consumers.

If Rip Van Hearingaid had fallen asleep in the mid-90s to awake in 2005, he’d be astounded and delighted. More than four in five (83%) of hearing aids dispensed today are digital, HR estimates that more than 40% of hearing aids incorporate some form of directional technology, and dispensing professionals routinely use computerized fitting software and nonlinear rationales like NAL-NL1, DSL[i/o], and FIG6 in pursuit of the “perfect fitting.” Our field has embraced the concepts of wide dynamic range compression, there is a lot more understanding about natural cochlear function including cochlear dead spots (see Ted Venema’s article on p 58), and issues like recruitment and the upward spread of masking. And, although electronic technology still outpaces audiological research, the engineers and the hearing scientists continue to make progress on how DSP technology can be applied for enhanced customer satisfaction. Likewise, there are now digital products vying for the interest of consumers who have milder hearing losses, and a concerted effort to get people onto the “hearing care pipeline” before the traditional 7-year-wait that has resulted in a majority of patients who have “lived with” their hearing loss 6 years longer than they should have. My point is this: why shouldn’t the hearing industry and dispensing professionals succeed in expanding unit sales and vastly improve market penetration (at least beyond 22%!) for one of the world’s most sophisticated electronic devices designed to solve a prevalent and debilitating health problem?

Answer: There is no reason. That is not to say there aren’t daunting roadblocks: the nature of the disability does not lend itself to a “100% cure,” most primary care physicians and consumers are still lacking in awareness about the general health and quality of life benefits of better hearing, and hearing aid technology is still a long way from perfect. Additionally, the hearing aid industry remains small (2.15 million units) in comparison to other industries, and this sometimes places manufacturers at a disadvantage in terms of marketing and technology. For example, MP3 player sales are expected to go from 18 million units in sales in 2004 to 52.4 million units in 2007. Who is the large-volume IC or tech developer going to be more interested in collaborating with?

But, at the risk of sounding like a Pollyanna, the recent achievements and hurdles that have been overcome by the hearing care field are extremely impressive. There is an old bit of advice that states you should always ask yourself the question, “What happens if I succeed?” prior to undertaking any endeavor. It may seem premature to be worried about throngs of people making a mad dash for dispensing offices—especially after the hearing industry has experienced a 4-year cochlear dead zone of its own. But there is one fact that should be considered: there are about 28 million people in the US who have a substantial hearing impairment, there are about 7 million people who have a hearing aid, and there are approximately 12,000 dispensing offices. That makes about 580 active customers per dispensing office—with three times as many people needing to get into the “hearing care pipeline.”

So the questions become, Are there enough dispensing professionals and offices to assist in the expansion of market share? Are we recruiting and training enough dispensing professionals to meet the market demands of tomorrow? w

Karl Strom