Geoff wrote the other week about Sonova purchasing Blamey & Saunders, which brings up the conversation about buying hearing aids online or over-the-counter, without the need for hearing care professionals to fit them for you.
I wrote about the disruption in the hearing industry and the future of hearing aid sales many years ago, that article is not dated but I bet it must be fives years ago at least, and to be honest, I am surprised that in 2019 we are not further forward with self-fitting options. I would have expected that by now we would be able to either go into a high-street electronics store or browse online and buy a proper hearing aid, take it home and be able to accurately tune it to our own individual hearing loss.
Technology has moved on since I wrote that old article, all manufacturers now have Bluetooth-enabled devices that connect hearing aids directly to smartphones, which means your phone becomes a remote control for your aids that are currently used to change volume and programmers but could be improved to also walk you through setting up a brand new hearing aid.
So how close are we? Could it work for the masses?
An App on your phone could perform the various hearing tests that are required to accurately programme the hearing aid for your loss by playing sounds via the hearing aids, this would mimic the tests a hearing professional does on your first visit. This provides a baseline setting that should mean sounds are amplified to the point that you can hear speech. This is the real meat of self-fitting, if this is done right the rest of the process will fall into place.
Earwax is a problem, people may think they have a hearing loss but actually just have a lot of wax, so they don’t even need an aid.
Another problem is that there will be people with a hearing loss so bad that it requires a custom earpiece to be made that is moulded to their ear to avoid feedback, as the sound amplification needed is so powerful. I”m in this bracket, I would not be able to wear an off-the-shelf hearing aid, I’d need something custom made.
Having said, the majority of people will have a hearing loss that falls into the range that does not need a custom earpiece and they would be able to purchase an aid with a one-size-fits-all rubber ear piece.
A further problem would be the time needed for someone to get used to a new hearing aid, this is not a problem specifically for self-fitting purchases as many hearing practices find that many people return their aids quickly, upset that they aren’t hearing as well as they wanted because they have not taken the time to retrain their ears and brains to comprehend the new sounds they are experiencing. People want instant success, plug-and-play but it is often not going to be like that, not because of the hearing aid, but because of your brain – for this reason, there will be returned hearing aids, bad reviews, and upset customers.
Tele-audiology is now a thing, meaning you can talk to a hearing professional via a Skype-like video service and have them help you with your hearing aid issues without having to visit their clinic, so that would solve the majority of issues people would have with their new purchase.
So all of the technology pieces are now in place to make this a reality for a large percentage of those with hearing loss. Blamey & Saunders, Audicus, Hearing Direct, and others are already in the game. One of the large hearing aid manufactures should be ideally placed to start selling direct to customers via the high street and the Web, the technology is no longer the barrier.
Why do we even want to buy hearing aids over the counter and self-fit them?
For me, moving towards a self-fitting model and using a professional for advice and support where needed is not about getting rid of the professional audiologist/dispenser because they are bad in some way or even because self-fitting is better. It’s not about getting rid of the professional for the sake of it, or just because we can. The real benefit to doing this is making it quicker and easier for people to get a real fully-functioning hearing aid and to get major benefits from it, without having to book an appointment, travel across town and so on. But even more than that, having hearing aids for sale in every electronics store normalizes them, they become just another consumer electronic item that someone might pick up with their new TV – hearing aids stop being a medical device for people with medical deficiencies and become a lifestyle accessory that people are happy to wear, even want to wear.
Currently, only a tiny percentage of the people who need a hearing aid actually wear one, the barrier to wearing is too high for them, maybe that’s because of the price, the hassle or the stigma of needing a medical device – self-fitting can fix all of these issues and sky-rocket the number of people hearing better.