If you asked consumers what is most important when buying a hearing aid, would they say price or sound quality?
Hearing Tracker, a respected independent online resource for consumers, and USB Evidence Labs recently surveyed more than 360 audiologists about what brands and features consumers ask for most when buying a hearing aid.
Not surprisingly, sound quality came in first by a long shot (56 percent), with reliability a distant second (17 percent) and value for money in third place (12 percent).
I don't doubt that is exactly what the audiologists' customers said they wanted. But I also wonder if the answers would have been different if the customers, especially those who never go to an audiologist, had been asked directly. I expect those consumers would say an affordable price was their top priority.
Currently, only 1 in 7 U.S. adults who can benefit from a hearing aid have one. Why don't the other six?
The answer is cost. "Hearing aids are expensive," Jan Blustein and Barbara Weinstein wrote in a June 2016 article in the American Journal of Public Health. Medicare and most insurance plans don't cover them, and so consumers typically pay for aids and fittings out of pocket. And that can get costly. The average cost of a single hearing aid is $2,300, but because age-related hearing loss typically affects both ears, that's a tidy $4,600 — a sum beyond the reach of many older people. Blustein and Weinstein note that "in a recent population-based prospective study, a majority of participants cited cost as a major deterrent to buying a hearing aid."
Kim Cavitt, a past president of the Academy of Doctors of Audiology, says audiologists have turned a blind eye to consumer wants. In a recent article headlined "Have We Missed the Signs?" in Hearing Health and Technology Matters, she wrote that consumers "for the past decade have been clamoring for lower-cost amplification solutions," meaning more affordable hearing aids or hearing aid–like devices.
The devices she refers to are lower-cost products that can effectively help with mild to moderate hearing loss. These won't replace traditional hearing aids, she wrote but will expand the market by providing a gateway to more advanced traditional hearing aids.
She also noted that consumers want transparent pricing from audiologists — including detailed pricing of various goods and services — and access to assistive listening devices and aural rehabilitation. But mostly, consumers want hearing amplification they can afford.
This month, responding to that consumer demand, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) introduced a bill to ease restrictions for getting hearing aids, including eliminating a required medical exam for many devices. The bill was supported by a number of organizations, including AARP and the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), the nation's largest consumer group representing people with hearing loss.
The legislation preceded an announcement from the Food and Drug Administration that it will no longer require adults to get a medical exam before purchasing certain hearing aids, clearing the way for a new category of over-the-counter devices.
Barbara Kelley, the executive director of the HLAA, endorses both developments.
"Each and every day," she wrote, "our office receives letters, phone calls and emails from people with hearing loss inquiring about financial assistance to purchase hearing aids (up to 10 requests a day). The financial help page on hearingloss.org is the number one visited page on HLAA's website. Sadly, there are few financial aid resources. Creating a category of over-the-counter hearing aids will go a long way toward making these essential devices affordable for the millions of Americans who need them."
Cavitt agrees although she isn't discounting the need for audiologists, by any means. People with serious hearing loss will always need audiologists and the services that only they can offer, she says.
For now, though, the goal should be finding an easier, financially feasible way to get the remaining 6 out of 7 Americans with hearing loss the devices they need.