PLYMOUTH, Minn — The growing popularity of open-fit products and the increase in direct-to-consumer marketing are impacting the ways hearing care professionals serve their patients most effectively, note experts from Sonus, one of the largest professional hearing care networks in North America. The company reports that its Sonus Network has adjusted its professional training program so its members can educate their customers about the latest industry developments and work with their patients to choose the best hearing products and fit for their needs.

“Hearing aids are becoming more user-friendly and discreet to break down the stigma and expand the age group of those using the product,” says Steve Huart, director of professional development at Amplifon USA, the parent company of Sonus. “But ultimately it is not the hearing aid that provides the solution. It is the professional who makes a difference.”

Huart and his colleagues have identified three main trends of the past year that have influenced how dispensing professionals treat hearing loss: open-fit products, especially those that feature the receiver in the canal; direct marketing to the consumer; and independent verification of the fit prescribed by manufacturer software.  These developments, along with those Huart foresees in 2008, have changed the way Sonus educates its professionals.

“Even with technological advances, human interaction is needed to maximize benefits of hearing aids, and that relies on training the professional,” Huart says. “The professional providing patient support—fittings, rehabilitation and consumer education—is the key.”

1. Open-Fit and Receiver-in-the-Canal Products
The simplicity and popularity of open-fit products have increased demand among consumers. Busy professionals who do not have time for long fittings might find the convenience of open-fit products perfect for their schedules. However, hand in hand with the surge in popularity, Sonus Network members have recognized the need to educate the consumer about their benefits and limitations, provide the appropriate number of fittings, and instruct their patients on proper use. The Sonus Network provides professionals with training and information on open-fit products through ongoing continuing-education programs that are Web-based, and it is also beginning to integrate the curriculum into its Greenhouse training program.

“Hearing aids with the receiver in the canal have become prevalent because they are very cosmetically appealing,” Huart says.

The receiver-in-the-canal devices are smaller than traditional hearing aids, making them more attractive to a younger market. Some have cited that the devices work better because there is no slim tube to restrict the flow of sound energy. Experts agree they do not plug the ear and they help eliminate hollow or muffled sound, but no conclusive studies have verified these claims about performance yet. The Sonus Network trains hearing-health professionals to identify and address the assumptions that accompany these products and fully educate consumers on their features.

2. Direct Marketing to Consumer

Similar to the marketing revolution in the pharmaceutical industry, the hearing care field is beginning to see more direct marketing to the consumer. Customers learn about products from the media and ask for hearing aids by name. In response, Sonus is educating professionals on the full range of hearing products and the features they include, so when customers mention a specific product, dispensing professionals can help them assess its features and choose the product that is right for them.

“We want the professionals to know which features of the hearing aid actually matter,” Huart explains.

The Sonus Network provides training programs where dispensing professionals can discuss the facts and myths about new products on the market. According to Huart, the classes have proved to be helpful and have received positive feedback from participating network members.

3. Independent Fit Verification
As dispensing professionals continue to hone their customer-service skills, many are using independent measures to verify the fit of hearing products beyond following the guidelines provided by the manufacturer’s software.

“We are encouraging professionals to take it up a notch,” notes Rebecca Younk, the Amplifon USA product education and training program manager.

To this end, Sonus trains professionals to perform speech mapping, probe microphone measurements and real-ear measurements to ensure that patients fully enjoy optimal fit and performance from their hearing devices

What to Watch for in 2008

Looking ahead to 2008, Sonus experts anticipate that hearing aids will continue to adapt to consumers’ demand for a sophisticated appearance. Younk envisions hearing aids will no longer look like hearing aids, as they take on new shapes and colors in order to reach new demographics.

“We need to expand the age range of the group of people wearing hearing aids to include baby boomers, and products that don’t look like hearing aids will make it more likely that this generation will invest in better hearing,”Younk adds.

Huart also foresees that new developments in the technology will lead to increased hearing aid compatibility with other widely used wireless devices, such as MP3 players and Bluetooth headsets. “With these advances, we hope consumers of all ages will be less apprehensive about using hearing aids when the need arises,” says Huart.

For more information about Sonus, click here.