By Dennis Van Vliet, AuD

I’m spending weekends on a new project these days restoring the barn that my family lived in for nearly 2 years in the early 1950s. The structure needs new windows and doors, so I’m in the midst of researching and purchasing the right products. I’ll need some help with that, and I’ll likely buy many of the products from a local smaller business that can help me with selection and installation advice. The skylights are different. I have experience with a brand that I like, and they are more of a commodity to me that I can purchase on the Internet or a big box building supply store.

I’ve been remarking to myself how things have changed in the 60+ years since my father built the barn. Everything, from purchasing decisions to available products, has changed dramatically. Similarly, I’ve seen changes in hearing aid technology since my first experiences in the mid-1970s, and the experience with the barn remodel started me thinking about what we will see in the near future of the hearing aid industry, say the next 10 years.

Facts About 2023

Currently, the leading edge of the boomers—those born in 1946—haven’t impacted us yet, even though we’ve been talking about them for years. Birth rate statistics show that there are many more boomers born a decade later, in the mid-1950s, who will be at the right age 10 years from now and will be looking for hearing help. Who will provide the professional services, and how will we market to those looking for help?

Boomers, Generations X, Y, and Z will be in the workforce. Even with that, predictions are that there will be more people looking for service than those trained to provide care unless some things change in the market.

Today, marketing has changed dramatically, and increasing numbers of people are abandoning yellow pages and newspapers as sources of information. We can expect further change in the coming decade.

Service models. Internet sales, big box, and insurance companies are working to change the way hearing aids are provided. So far, they have had some impact, and there is no doubt that things will continue to change as these non-traditional models adapt to the market. Our experience to date tells us that there are consumers in the market who need more support, and will never be successful without personalized face-to-face service. At the same time, there are those who are resourceful enough to make their way without our help, and whether or not we think it is a good idea, they will support Internet and other non-traditional models.

Technology. Evolutionary changes in technology continue to emerge as manufacturers work to develop better, smaller, and less power-hungry components. Innovation will no doubt bring new developments, and it will take time to see which are adopted in this complex market. If the past is any indication, it is unlikely that we will see short-term major “game changing” developments in the next decade, but we will see continual improvements that seem dramatic compared to today’s offerings.

Optical ear scanning is an emerging technology that will impact the way custom molds and hearing aids are made. Since there are no products on the market as yet, we can only speculate on the impact of scanning technology for impressions. If the cost for the technology is reasonable, and if the output is as good or better than the current impression methods, ear scanning will bring an innovative and positive change to the market.

Implantable devices. Cochlear implants (CIs) have made a big impact on the lives of thousands of patients who would otherwise have few options for improving their ability to hear. CIs have been successful because their evolution followed a disciplined regimen of research and development, and the outcomes have been successful.

They also have been largely paid for by third-party payors and not the retail market. At tens of thousands of dollars, far fewer CIs would have been provided if all recipients had to pay for them. I’m not arguing that hearing aids should be universally paid for by third-party payors; there are many drawbacks to the US medical billing model. From our perspective, in a time of tight budgets and governmental gridlock, it will be interesting to see how third-party payment for hearing devices evolves over the next 10 years. Additionally, there are devices in development that are essentially implantable hearing aids. I am curious to see how these affect the market as they are improved in convenience, comfort, out-of-pocket cost, and performance that may rival hearing aids.

Wireless. Whether we are hearing aid users or not, wireless technology has had an impact on many of us. As the technology improves, there will undoubtedly be more capability and functionality that will help us find the answers many of our patients are looking for. If we are to stay involved as a professional resource to consumers, we will need to learn how to fully personalize wireless systems and appeal to those with hearing loss, as well as those who may not need hearing aids but may need customized connectivity.

Batteries. As a practical matter, batteries are a small part of the cost and bother of maintaining hearing aids, yet they create a disproportionate amount of frustration and annoyance for many hearing aid users. In the past decade, we have seen dramatic improvements in battery technology fueled by products such as consumer electronics, hybrid cars, and industrial tools. Improvements in battery technology that will yield more convenient and reliable performance for hearing aid users will receive enthusiastic consumer support.

The Final Word? Just as 2013 has turned out to be different than 2003, in 10 years our world of providing services and products for people with hearing loss should be different in many ways. Our job today is to start building a foundation that keeps us up and ready not only with current technology, but prepared to evaluate and take advantage of new things that we will undoubtedly face as the next decade unfolds. Where do we start? If you still have a big bill for a yellow pages ad, you might want to take a look at the return you are getting from that.

Dennis Van Vliet, AuD, has been a prominent clinician, columnist, educator, and leader in the hearing healthcare field for nearly 40 years. He currently serves as the senior director of professional relations for Starkey Technologies, Eden Prairie, Minn. Correspondence can be addressed to HR or: [email protected]