You might want to take those earbuds out for a second. A recent study by theJournalsofGerontology found that we are more likely than not to experience hearing loss, reporting that 63.1% of those over seventy suffer from hearing loss. However, this is not a problem confined to the elderly; 48% ofthosewhohavehearinglossarebetweentheagesof 45 and 74. Today, 36 million Americans suffer from hearing loss, and that number will increase significantly in the coming years as the population ages. And it isn’t getting any better–the rise of iPods and ever-present media have contributed to the increasing prevalence of hearing loss, especially in youth.
Hearing loss doesn’t simply dampen hearing. Studies have linked hearing loss to depression, falls, memory and cognitive deterioration, and even career and financial loss. The Better Hearing Institute recently noted that those suffering from hearing loss have increased risk of Alzheimer’s, kidney disease, diabetes, and even heart disease. Furthermore, a recent UniversityofPennsylvaniastudy found that untreated hearing loss contributes to brain atrophy. Although hearing cannot be recovered once lost, the majority of those suffering from hearing loss can benefit from hearing aids, and hearing aids have been shown to strongly mitigate many of these ailments resulting from otherwise untreated hearing loss.
With such high prevalence of hearing loss, and very serious consequences from untreated hearing loss, one might expect to see many people with hearing aids. However, only 25% of those with hearing loss use hearing aids. Why such low adoption rates? For many, social stigma and a desire to not “look old” are common reasons. Fortunately, the hearing aids of 2012 are not your parents’ or grandparents’ hearing aids–or even the hearing aids of a decade ago. Hearing aid technology has advanced considerably, allowing for higher quality, smaller, and more attractive options than the hearing aids of yesteryear. Today’s hearing aids aren’t bulky medical devices; they are discreet consumer electronics that can even connect to your iPhone with bluetooth.
While social acceptance remains a problem, price plays the most significant barrier. The prohibitively high price of hearing aids makes it difficult or impossible for many to purchase or replace their hearing aids. According to the 2009 report “25-yearTrendsintheHearingHealthMarket,” the average price for a pair of hearing aids in 2008 was $4,652. Furthermore, the average price has increased over that 25-year period while hearing aid adoption has stagnated.
How has such a large market gone unfulfilled for so long? The characteristics of the hearing aid market–low adoption rates, high prices, limited distribution–are the hallmarks of monopoly. In order to insure the safety and efficacy of hearing aid treatment, the law requires that licensed medical professionals provide hearing tests and services. Unfortunately, this puts audiologists and hearing aid dispensers in the position of being salesmen. Audiologists bundle together the cost of their medical services with the cost of the hearing aids, obfuscating the true costs of the hearing aids, and charging thousands of dollars in service markup. This creates high prices, excludes many from the market, and creates a financial hardship for those who can purchase them.
In recent years, other options have emerged. Costcoand Sam’sclubboth offer free hearing tests and also sell hearing aids. Additionally, new entrants in onlinehearingaid sales are emerging. Nevertheless, the majority of hearing aids are still sold through audiologists. Audiologists argue that their higher prices are justified by the quality of their services and often unlimited follow-up service visits. However, a Hearing Review study found that patients used an average of three follow-up visits, with only 20% using more than 4 follow-up visits. In other words, most patients do not need unlimited follow-up visits, and would be better off if they could pay per visit. The market is broken, and the solution requires that audiologists unbundle their services so that audiologists can go back to providing medical services instead of selling hearing aids.