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Embrace Hearing News

 

Like any device we rely upon—whether it’s a laptop, a cell phone, or a desktop printer—ahearing aid has to work when we need it. And like any of those, hearing aids work better when they are properly maintained.

Keeping your hearing aids in top working condition doesn’t have to be daunting, or an excuse for a costly trip to a repair shop. Instead, some basic preventive maintenance can go a long way towards keeping your hearing aid functional and error-free.

Among the most basic steps you can take to maintain your hearing aids is to be mindful of earwax.

 

How can I keep my hearing aid free of earwax?

The human body produces earwax to keep our ear canals moist and free of unwanted debris. Unfortunately, that means it can also hinder devices we do want in our ears, including earbud headphones and hearing aids.

Though BtE (behind the ear) hearing aids, such as Embrace Hearing models, are less susceptible to wax than aids that sit fully in the ear, it’s still important to consider the impact that earwax build-up has on your aid. In fact, researchers found that earwax is one of the most common reasons that all types of hearing aids stop working. In fact, they are still working fine, they are just plugged.

Wax is particularly common on any parts of the aid that sit inside the ear canal, such as the speaker (also called the receiver) in Embrace Hearing aids, which projects sound into the ear canal. If enough wax builds up on the speaker, it can muffle sound or even damage the aid. In some cases, earwax can even lead the hearing aid to switch itself off.

Simple daily cleaning of the aid will not only help reduce the risk of wax-related damage but also ensure that you’re hearing the clearest sounds from the aid. Many hearing aid professionals recommend inspecting your hearing aids in the evening as part of a regular routine. It is also a good idea to replace the domes when they become discolored or damaged.

Most premium hearing aids come with replaceable wax guards. These very small white “guards” can only be seen when the dome is removed. They perform the critical job of keeping wax out of the speaker. Any time your hearing aids seem quieter than normal and seem to cut in and out, always start by replacing the wax guards.

For guidelines on cleaning the components of Embrace Hearing aids, including how to replace wax guards and domes, take a look at our library of instructional videos, including methods for cleaning the hearing aid tubing and replacing an earwax guard.

 

What steps can I take to make earwax less of an issue?

A good place to start is to simply be diligent in talking to your doctor about when it’s necessary to remove earwax. Unlike the cotton swabs of your youth, doctors now recommend a variety of non-invasive removal methods to treat earwax buildup, including wax softeners and water rinses.

Depending on how much earwax you produce, your doctor also might recommend simply washing out your ear canals while taking a shower.

Sure, earwax is an unpleasant fact of life, but don’t let it stop you from utilizing your hearing aids to the fullest. A brief conversation with your doctor and some routine preventive maintenance will go a long way towards ensuring optimal performance from your aid.

 

If you’ve been meaning to invest in a hearing aid for you or a dependent this year, take a look at your FSA or HSA options. These tax-free savings accounts are great assets that can help lower the cost of hearing aids significantly, but some accounts need to be used before the end of the year.

How can I use my FSA/HSA account to buy a hearing aid?

If you have one of these accounts already set up in 2015, hearing aids are reimbursed in the same way as any other covered medical expense, such as eyeglasses or dental work. 

I have an FSA/HSA account but I don’t have enough money in it to pay for hearing aids. What should I do?

If you need hearing aids but don’t have sufficient funds in your account, speak to your plan holder about increasing your deposit to cover the hearing aids you are looking for. Remember these funds are deposited tax free so you can still save significantly on your aids. 

I don’t have an FSA or HSA. What are they?

If you are covered under an employer’s health insurance plan, you may have access to a flexible spending account (FSA) or a health savings account (HSA), where you can store funds intended for out-of-pocket medical expenses. The funds in these accounts can be used for medical costs not covered by your insurance, including buying a hearing aid.

An HSA/FSA allows account holders to pay for current health care expenses and save for those in the future. Its advantage is that contributions are tax-deductible, or if made through a payroll deduction, are pre-tax. Second, the interest earned on the account balance is tax-free.

How do they work?

You deposit money as a payroll deduction (FSA) or directly (HSA). When it comes time to actually make the purchase, it’s easy to access the funds in your account. Often you can access your FSA and HSA funds via a debit card, which can be used when you make your purchase. If you don’t have access to a debit card, you can submit receipts from your purchases to your insurance company or employer for reimbursement from your account. Since this is your money simply stored in an outside account, there is never a debate about how much insurance companies will reimburse, as long as it’s a qualified expense.

How much time do I have to use these accounts?

HSA accounts roll over into the following year. But if you’re planning on using FSA funds, remember that you need to make your purchase by December 31 to be eligible to use your account. 

How do I set up an account for next year?

Talk to your employer or insurance company about how to set up an account. It’s easy: you commit to an annual amount at the beginning of the year and you use the money when you need it. Remember this is a pre-tax payment, so you don’t pay income tax on your deposits or when you use the funds for a qualified expense. So by using these accounts in your purchase, you are buying your hearing aids income-tax free!

Think about the first time you went to an electronics store to buy a computer or a television. Remember the seemingly endless options, features, and functionality that the salesperson demonstrated to you? At the end of the day, you likely wondered which features were essential and which were simply unnecessary add-ons designed to sell a product.

Buying a hearing aid can be a lot like that experience, except now you are relying upon this device to make a real impact on your quality of life. It’s more important than ever to understand what you truly need in a hearing aid and what you don’t. Unfortunately, many hearing aid retailers make the process just as confusing as trying to buy that first computer or TV. Instead of explaining the basics of their products, they offer up confusing jargon and showcase hundreds of different models from dozens of major manufacturers.

To help, we’ve put together some tips to remember during your shopping process.

Learn the basics behind hearing aid technology.

As a consumer, one of the first steps you can take is to educate yourself about the basic components of hearing aid technology. It’s helpful to start with functionality that’s common amongst all devices, then learn more about additional customization and add-ons.

For example, two terms you’ll likely see during your shopping experience are “channels” and “programs”—most hearing aids have them, but that doesn’t mean all the hearing aids you consider are equal.

“Since a consumer might have to pay more for hearing aids with a greater number of channels, this not only becomes a question of performance but of cost,” according to Dr. Mark Ross, who has studied hearing loss for Gallaudet University.

Let’s start with the “channels” on a hearing aid, which refer to the range of frequencies that can be detected by an aid. Some hearing aid dispensers will insist that you choose an aid with the highest number of channels possible, but it’s important to remember that quantity does not always equal quality.

Researchers have found that hearing aids with more than 20 channels can actually garble speech or make sound harder to decipher. So while it may be a benefit to have a higher number of channels, at a certain point increasing the amount of channels won’t help your hearing—in fact, it may actually make it harder to hear.

Another sometimes misunderstood feature of hearing aids are the “programs” on the device, modes that hearing aids use to compensate for background noise or to adapt to a different noise level. Some hearing aids are equipped with programs that help the user hear better in a crowded room or even turn down the volume in quiet moments. But on many aids, the user has to manually adjust the settings, which can be tricky when trying to operate such a small device. Others, including Embrace Hearing models, eliminate the need to switch programs altogether by handling the switching automatically.

When shopping for a hearing aid, don’t forget to ask about devices that make switching between programs easiest for you.

Be honest about your comfort level with technology.

If you’re an early adopter of all sorts of new technology in your life, from smartphones to smartwatches, then you will likely want a hearing aid that also comes with a full suite of advanced features. On the other hand, if you find feature-laden devices confusing or complicated, it’s best to stick with a simpler option.

For example, consider the use of BlueTooth in hearing aids. A wireless technology that allows a user to connect their hearing aid to another device without any additional cables or connections, BlueTooth is essentially a radio wave connecting one device to another.

In the case of hearing aids, BlueTooth connectivity enables you to connect your aid directly to the sound output of your TV or mobile phone, improving your listening experience. Deciding whether to invest in BlueTooth capability will depend largely on how much you interact with technology, such as talking on a cell phone, watching television, or listening to music on a portable digital player. If those are important aspects of your life, a hearing aid with BlueTooth capabilities should be on your list. If that level of technology makes your head spin, it may not be worth the extra investment.

“Even if they had Bluetooth programming technology available to them, [many clients] are not...capable of embracing that kind of technology easily,” Bettie Borton of the American Academy of Audiology told the New York Times.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Perhaps the most important aspect to remember when shopping for a hearing aid is that you are making an investment in improving your own quality of life, so don’t let a dispenser or salesperson talk you into a hearing aid model that isn’t right for you. Don’t shy away from asking questions and making sure you are equipped with the knowledge you need to make the appropriate choice for you—and if you aren’t getting the answers you need, take your business elsewhere. Remember that while technology can do many wonderful things, it only works if you understand it.

Hearing loss, unlike vision impairment or physical ailments, isn’t always noticeable at first. Because the slow loss of hearing can often be ignored or downplayed, sufferers frequently delay getting help as long as possible—research shows that the average sufferer waits ten years between receiving a diagnosis of hearing loss and actually purchasing hearing aids.

At least some of these people delay their purchases because they have heard many of the widespread myths surrounding hearing loss. If you or a loved one is considering a hearing aid purchase, take a moment to look over some of the common misconceptions below. They show that the benefits of hearing aids far outweigh the (often overstated) costs.

People won’t notice my hearing loss, but they will notice my hearing aids.

“What many people with hearing loss don’t realize is that the signs of the untreated hearing loss are more noticeable to others than hearing aids,” audiologist Deborah Touchette told the New York Times. Hearing loss sufferers can experience a range of related issues, from difficulties at work (including, in some cases, a pay reduction) to trouble holding conversations in noisy places to even having difficulty hearing the voices of young children—all issues that can be improved with proper hearing aids, many of which are small and easily overlooked.

Hearing aids are uncomfortable and don’t work well.

Hearing aids today have become smaller, more discreet and more powerful, just like other forms of popular technology like cellphones and computers. In fact, the digital revolution that has transformed phone technology has also impacted hearing aids, with newer models featuring powerful components that allow for advanced filtering of background noise and multiple microphones.

Hearing aids are too expensive.

Though hearing aids are not inexpensive, their cost is reasonable relative to their compact technology. For example, a typical digital hearing aid contains advanced microphones, computer chips, and a power source in a package able to fit behind (or within) the ear—all for under $1000 for a basic device.

New business models are trying to lower the cost for premium devices as well. While small, independent local hearing shops charge an average of well over $5000 for a hearing aid, you can save 60%-70% of that cost by purchasing a comparable aid online and still have full audiology support.

Hearing aids won’t improve my quality of life.

Hearing aids can’t restore your hearing back to its normal level, but they can make major improvements in your ability to function in daily life. Researchers found that most hearing aid users reported improvements in their social lives, confidence, and ability to communicate.

I won’t be able to get a hearing aid to work properly for me.

With advances in technology, hearing aids have become much easier for the wearer to operate. Now, computer chips and digital technology inside many hearing aids allows the device to automatically adjust to changes in the sound environment without the user having to take any action at all.

Navigating the cacophonous streets of New York City can be daunting process for practically anyone -- and for people who wear hearing aids, the task has long been made more difficult by constant background noise and a lack of infrastructure to make the process easier.

Fortunately, there's an easy solution -- hearing loops, which allow wireless connectivity to hearing aids with telecoils, effectively transmitting sound from its source directly to the hearing aid, and mitigating the effect of background noise. Unfortunately, adoption of hearing loops, which are widespread in Europe, has been painfully slow.

Until recently, that is. Largely thanks to the founder of the Hearing Access Program, Janice Schacter, New Yorkers are benefiting from increased accommodations for hearing aids:

Following a successful pilot program, the Taxi and Limousine commission announced that it had approved the induction loop technology for voluntary installation across all TLC-related industries, including taxi cabs. The transition to 100% looped taxis (which London has enjoyed since 1998) was accelerate when it was announced that New York's "taxis of tomorrow" will all have induction loops to help people with hearing aids communicate more easily with their drivers.

In addition to taxis, the Hearing Access Program has brought hearing loops to such public spaces as the New York Historical Society, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the new Yankee Stadium.

Additionally, the Hearing Access Program spearheaded a drive to install hearing loops at all of New York's ~450 subway stations, which is now complete.

Finally, the hearing aids on the subways have been getting some extra attention lately from the New York City Department of Health, with advertisements that caution headphone users to turn down their music to avoid permanent hearing loss. It's worth noting that Starkey, a hearing aid manufacturer, helped funds these advertisements, and deserves praise for its role.

We think New York City is mostly on the right track recently with hearing aids -- hearing loss should be prevented where possible, and people with hearing aids deserve to benefit from hearing loop systems in public spaces wherever possible. We wish that New York and other governments could see fit to bring resources to bear on making hearing aids more affordable -- but at least for now, it looks like it's up to private companies to play this role.

In our last article, we discussed some anecdotal suggestions that hearing aid dispensers in California are likely working far below full capacity. In this post, we’ll dig into the evidence. While this topic may be pretty far removed from the mind of the average consumer considering a hearing aid purchase, it’s important to understand nonetheless – when you pay high hearing aid prices, you’re not paying for $6,000 of electronics… you’re paying your hearing aid dispenser’s rent and other fixed costs of doing business!

Thanks to publicly available data at the Hearing Aid Dispenser portal, we know that there are approximately 1,967 licensed hearing aid dispenser and dispensing audiologists in California, as of July 2013. With a few assumptions, we can also arrive at a rough estimate of the amount of time spent fitting hearing aids.

Hearing Aid Assumptions:

-          California’s rate of hearing aid adoption is approximately the same as America’s

-          The average hearing aid wearer visits a dispenser twice per year. (This may be overstating things – recall that the average hearing aid purchaser returns for a follow-on visit less than twice in the year immediately following a hearing aid purchase – and visit rates are almost certainly lower after the first year)

-          The average visit takes 60 minutes

This back-of-the-envelope analysis suggests that California’s hearing aid dispensing system is operating at only 31% of capacity – or said another way, that the typical hearing aid dispenser or dispensing audiologist spends only 614 hours in a full 2,000 hour work-year actually fitting hearing aids.

But before we hang our hat on these numbers, a few disclaimers!

First – dispensing audiologists offer many important services in addition to fitting and dispensing hearing aids – so we would not expect their practices to work anywhere close to 100% capacity with respect to dispensing hearing aids.

Second, 100% capacity isn’t realistic, plenty of time has to go into running a practice. (That said, a realistic goal might be in the 80% range, which would imply 32 hours per week spent fitting hearing aids).

And third, since there are several assumptions involved, there is also significant uncertainty. Below is what the numbers might look at if key assumptions were adjusted one way or the other.

 

All caveats aside – in our view, the data do seem to confirm that the hearing aid dispensing industry operates far below capacity. As an independent check, a recent survey of hearing care professionals funded by Phonak suggests an average workweek among full-time hearing care professionals of less than 30 hours per week – or less than 75% of full-time capacity.

So why does this matter?

Well, in most oversaturated retail categories, some individual stores decide, sooner or later, to compete on price. These stores tend to attract more customers, and the stores that decide to keep prices high are eventually forced to shut their doors as customers shop elsewhere. Thanks to concentrated customer demand, the remaining locations are pushed closer to full capacity, enabling them to turn a healthy profit, despite charging lower prices. While consumers may not have as many store locations to shop at, they benefit from lower prices.

So in an industry characterized by both overcapacity and high prices – such as hearing aids – we’d eventually expect some participants to exit the market as competition for scarce customers pushes down prices. Instead, we see this!

 

Even in an industry plagued by overcapacity, the number of dispensers has actually increased by over 30% since 2001. Typically, industries expand when there is so much demand everyone has to work overtime – not when there is so much slack that 30-hour weeks are the norm. But hearing aids don’t appear to follow the rules at all!

Unfortunately, this expansion of practices has not led to lower prices, nor is it likely to. We believe that this is because hearing aid dispensers are forced to charge high prices to those that can afford them just to cover their fixed costs stay in business, even if it means everyone else is priced out of the market.

Paradoxically, the more hearing aid dispensers have entered the market, the more prices have climbed –more dispensers means fewer customers per dispenser, which means increasing hearing aid prices is the only way to stay in business.

The only way that hearing aid dispensers can both lower prices and remain economical, is if they can manage to operate closer to full capacity – but as long as the market for hearing care is oversaturated with practices, sub-30-hour weeks will remain the norm and hearing aid prices will stay high to pay inefficient fixed costs in underutilized offices.

In our next post we’ll try to get a sense of just how much money is being spent to maintain the overcapacity of the system. In the meantime, we’ll end with this thought: The manufacturing cost of a typical high-end hearing aid is less than $100, and the wholesale cost is around $500. Any system that charges customers $5,000 for hearing aids is a broken system.

This is the second of a three-part article on the California hearing aid market, and the contribution of an inefficient distribution network to high hearing aid prices.

 

This is part one of a three part series discussing evidence for the inefficient traditional market for hearing aids.

I wanted to share a shocking personal story that I thought followers of our blog would find interesting. On a Wednesday afternoon a few months back, a friend traveling in San Francisco was having some issues with name brand RIC hearing aids. He was scheduled to leave the country on Sunday, and he was new to hearing aids, so he called me up and asked for help making an audiologist appointment on short notice.

I did a quick search on the manufacturer’s website and found 12 hearing aid dispensing practices in San Francisco that serviced my friend’s RIC hearing aids. I was expecting to place one or two calls and book an appointment for Thursday and Friday.

I ended up calling all 12 numbers, and I was shocked by the results. All nine of the calls were sent straight to voicemail. I left eight messages, but received only two follow-up calls – one on Friday afternoon, and one the following Monday; neither was much help.

On the three calls on which I was able to speak with a live receptionist, I was also disappointed. One receptionist promised to call back later that afternoon when she had a better idea of the audiologist’s availability; she never did.

The final two calls were the most surprising of all. I was informed that the hearing aid dispensers had unusual schedules – both took Fridays off, one was out of town that week, and the other worked Mondays and Wednesdays in San Francisco and Tuesdays and Thursdays at a location on the outskirts of the Bay Area.

This meant he maintained multiple office locations to better be able to service his far-flung customer base; however, it also meant that he was paying the rent on two seven-day-a-week leases that he used only twice a week – hardly a model of cost efficiency.

I could hardly believe the result, but in the end I had to call up my friend friend and apologize; I wasn't able to make him an appointment on two days’ notice.

At the very least, it’s safe to say that the business practices that I had stumbled into did not prioritize customer accessibility to hearing aids. The hearing aid practices did not seem to be operating efficiently, as almost all of my voicemails went unreturned. And most perhaps most crucially, these dispensers did not seem to be operating at anywhere near full capacity – I confirmed that two practitioners were working reduced workweeks and schedules that left offices vacant several days a week; and reaching nine answering machines suggested to us that a number of offices were likely sitting vacant that Wednesday as well.

That said, I knew I was dealing with a small sample set, and that my experience might not be representative. I also know that customer accessibility on the first phone call and the number of hours a week a dispenser works may have nothing to do with the excellent standard of hearing aid care provided at his practice.

But we at Embrace Hearing were interested in learning more.

One of the core arguments for online distribution is that it is more cost-efficient than selling through brick & mortar stores. This is especially true if stores are operating at less than 100% capacity. To the extent that a large number of independent hearing aid dispensers work shortened business hours or less than full workweeks, as discussed above, the rent paid on their offices during downtime is essentially wasted. This “extra rent” is a hidden cost embedded in an inefficient distribution system and ultimately is balanced out by higher hearing aid prices. In other words, customers would end up subsidizing their healthcare providers’ operational inefficiency.

Said another way – in a properly competitive industry, the solution to chronic under-capacity would be the least-profitable dispensers exiting the market. Eventually, the number of stores would fall, but those remaining would operate at closer to peak capacity and be able to turn a profit without increasing prices.

The hearing aid industry is characterized by the strong pricing power wielded by hearing aid dispensers. Because hearing aid dispensers raise prices in lockstep, hearing aid stores can continue to churn a modest profit, while still operating far below peak capacity. The winners are hearing aid dispensers, who stay in business, and the losers are people with hearing loss, who are forced to swallow ever-higher prices.

This is a strong claim – so to back it up, I wanted to see some hard numbers. But data on the subject is hard to find… This wasn’t a situation where I could Google “hearing aid dispenser under-capacity” and expect to find anything meaningful.

Still, we think it’s an important question to be asking, so we decided to do some digging. Because state-level information isn’t aggregated at the federal level, we thought we’d take a look at the state with the largest population in the country – California.

As it turns out, there is some very interesting data on hearing aid dispensers publicly available at the Hearing Aid Dispenser search portal at the California Department of Consumer Affairs. In our next post, we’ll explore this data, pose some tough questions and suggest some interesting conclusions about the market for hearing aids in California.

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