2012: The Year Hearing Aid Prices Peaked?

2012 was a landmark year for the hearing aid industry. At Embrace, we think it will be remembered as the year the continued spread of affordable hearing aid prices became inevitable.

As awareness of the true dynamics of hearing aid prices grows in the mainstream community, and as online hearing aid sales gain increasing, if grudging, acceptance among professionals, Embrace Hearing has three predictions about 2013.

  1. The shift to online hearing aid sales will accelerate. Consumer awareness is growing, quality is high and prices are low… and for many professionals, “online” is no longer a dirty word – just an inconvenient fact of life. Hearing aids, in short, are going to be sold more like glasses, with several distribution options.
  2. For the first time in recent memory, hearing aid prices will fall. Prices charged by audiologists may actually increase as professionals sell to an affluent but shrinking group of customers who are wary of buying online, and can afford the luxury of premium audiologist pricing. But overall average hearing aid costs will decline as more customers shift to online hearing aid sales, which remain far more affordable.
  3. The shift toward “unbundling” will continue. As more consumers buy hearing aids online, audiologist perceptions of these consumers will shift. No longer will they be a “lost hearing aid sale” – increasingly, they will represent a “servicing revenue opportunity.” Ultimately, we’ll see more transparent & fair audiologist pricing, with the result that hearing aid prices will fall, while the price of great in-person service increases to a level commensurate with its true value.

Why do we think this?

First, 2012 marked the year hearing aid pricing began to get mainstream press. Features were run in both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times – which chronicled the frustration of searching for an affordable hearing aid in an opaque pricing environment (and which featured Embrace Hearing!). Our view is that greater awareness of alternative options will lead to customers seeking greater value for their money through online hearing aid sales.

Second, HiHealthInnovations, the online hearing aid venture backed by United Health, attempted to fully cut independent audiologists out of the hearing aid purchase cycle by putting a hearing test online. This represented the healthcare industry turning on itself, as current inefficiencies had simply become too great an opportunity too great to ignore for insurers -- which traditionally have little involvement in hearing aids.

This move drew immediate protests from the American Association of Audiology (AAA), as well as the Academy of Doctors of Audiology. But notably, the consumer group Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) disagreed:

“Our stance is to give innovative [online hearing aid] programs such as this one a chance… Hearing loss is a leading public health concern with 17 percent of American adults (36 million) reporting being affected…. Yet, fewer than 20 percent of people with hearing loss seek treatment and obtain hearing aids. While there are a number of reasons for lack of attention to this condition, the primary barrier is the cost of hearing health care services and especially hearing aids.

The HLAA agrees that face-to-face interaction with a health care professional to obtain personalized fitting of hearing aids as well as follow up services is the ideal situation. However, this approach operates as burden for a vast majority of adults with hearing loss who simply do not seek treatment….

The HLAA Board of Trustees met and… concluded that alternative delivery models and options are needed for some people who would otherwise not seek the services of a hearing professional.

While the FDA ultimately weighed in and shut down the online hearing test, hiHealthInnovations and other innovative new companies such as Embrace Hearing continue to successfully sell online, now with the support of the HLAA.

(We are proud to say we believe that Embrace Hearing offers a better combination of quality and price than hiHealthInnovations, owned by United Health, the largest health insurance company in the country. Our customer satisfaction is demonstrated by our low ~10% return rate – we challenge hiHealthInnvations to release a comparable statistic)

Finally, something even more surprising happened. In August, the AAA, the ADA, and the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) issued a joint statement to hearing care professionals focusing on consumer needs in the delivery models of hearing health care.

The unusual joint statement was a call for reflection and action regarding the current business of hearing care and how the insurance industry, technology, and hearing aid price concerns now require hearing practices to adapt to new ways of delivering hearing health care. Among other questions, it invited audiologists to ask themselves:

  • “What role does the sale of hearing aids play in your practice model? Do you have options in place to accommodate consumers who arrive at your practice with a hearing aid purchased elsewhere?"
  • “Are the costs associated with the care you provide transparent to the patient? If appropriate, do you itemize the cost of your services? When discussing amplification and other treatment, do you offer patients options? Do you engage family and others to support the patient with hearing loss?"

The statement’s message was clear – the world is changing, and patient needs – not audiologist needs –will determine how hearing aids are distributed in the future. Hearing healthcare professionals are encouraged to adapt, or be left by the wayside by online hearing aid sales.

Given all the industry turmoil and innovation in 2012, and all the exciting ideas we have in store for next year, we’ll offer one last parting thought – we’re looking forward to an even more disruptive 2013!

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