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A Boomer's Observations about the Audiology Industry

I just returned from the annual gathering of hearing aid professionals, this year in San Antonio, Texas. AudiologyNow2015, as it is called, is an annual event where audiologists get together to find out what’s new. There are sessions that inform them about current state-of-the art industry practice and everything from marketing to the most recent hearing research. This year, as always, the latest and greatest hearing aids, powered by new developments in technology, were on display. My focus here is on Boomers.

Boomers are new to both audiology and hearing loss. First, let’s deal with the differences between Boomers and the rest of the hearing-impaired community. Traditionally, most of the audiology business has centered on the following classes of people (the data come from The Hearing Loss Association of America):

  • Sixty percent of the people with hearing loss are either in the workforce or in educational settings.
  • About two to three of every 1,000 children are hard of hearing or deaf.
  • An estimated 30 schoolchildren per 1,000 have a hearing loss.

Hearing aids were designed with these groups in mind. They have had problems hearing for much or most of their lives. They have been aware of their hearing loss and are constantly trying to upgrade their hearing skills through lip-reading or hearing aids or both. And they upgrade to better hearing aids frequently because they want to hear everything or to hear more precisely—they want what most people take for granted when they listen to each other.

With the arrival of digital hearing aids, the hearing problems of these groups became easier to address technologically. A whole slew of features appeared, all based on the principle that once sound waves are digitized, they can be manipulated via software. As a result, hearing aids can now be set and optimized for just about any social situation. And the pricing of these hearing aids rose with the advanced features. In fact, adjusted for inflation, hearing aid prices were flat from 1980 to 2000, but with the arrival of digital hearing aids, the price has doubled!   

Along come we Boomers—a new breed of hearing-impaired people:

  • About 20 percent of adults in the United States, 48 million, report some degree of hearing loss.
  • At age 65, one out of three people has a hearing loss.
  • While workers with the mildest hearing losses show little or no drop in income compared with their peers who have normal hearing, as the hearing loss increases, compensation falls.

Boomers are becoming the largest group in need of hearing help. But unlike traditional hearing aid users, our problems, especially at the start, are neither so profound nor so overwhelming that we require all of the new digital features. In fact, most Boomers doubt that they need hearing aids at all, but that is often a self-inflicted wound of denial. Nonetheless, the hearing aids we Boomers need are a lot simpler than the ones sold by audiologists. In fact, given our age, it is unlikely that we will want to fidget much with any device, especially one this small, and you do have to fidget to access the features of digital hearing aids.

More important, Boomers are unlikely to spring for the average price: $2,000+ per hearing aid. And, yes, you need two of them, so the total damage is $4,000+. That is the down payment for typical cars. Most people simply can’t afford to spend this much money and as a result don’t know what they are missing. The audiology industry has yet to address this issue. Audiologists could be treating many millions more people than they are now, but their current business model cannot accommodate Boomers, especially not at this price.

I saw some very nifty hi-tech hearing technology at AudiologyNow2015, but it was largely priced out of reach for most people. I believe that the industry needs to rethink its current business model and concomitant price structure. My advice to the industry is that if it wants to capitalize on the aging of the Baby Boomers, it needs to borrow a page from Bill Gates. When he started Microsoft, he charged barely $75 for his software, at a time when his (soon forgotten) competitors charged $750 to $5,000. The rest is history.

Given the size of this market, the price of hearing aids and eyewear will eventually be comparable, and it would not surprise me if they were sold together.