On a recent outing to my beloved Costco for life’s necessities, I found myself paying more attention to the Hearing Aid Center than I had ever in the past. Hearing aid departments at box stores such as Costco are nothing new and I had seen this particular Hearing Aid Center countless times. But as I waited on the checkout line to pay for my diapers, cookies, laundry detergent, paper towels and the rest of my purchases, I found myself keeping a watchful eye on the booth and recalled an article that I had recently read in Bloomberg Businessweek. The article reported 26% growth of hearing aid sales per year on average for the past four years. As an audiologist and hearing aid dispenser, it begs the question…Really?
Of course I am not at all surprised that box stores sell hearing aids. They sell everything else and often at great value with fantastic customer service for their products. But knowing what I know about the process of diagnosing hearing loss and providing appropriate amplification, verification, handholding and counseling, it was indeed startling to read the article. My only rationalization for this is just an overall lack of awareness and understanding from the general public about hearing impairment, hearing aids, and practitioners who work with these issues.
I think that while most people may be aware that a hearing aid can provide benefit for hearing loss there is still so much unknown about audiology, hearing aids and the process of hearing aid fittings. To illuminate on this, audiologists are professionals specializing in disorders of the auditory and vestibular systems; audiologists diagnose and treat hearing and balance problems. Audiologists, most of whom hold a doctoral degree, have the foremost skills and education to evaluate hearing, have been trained to recognize when medical referrals are required, fit hearing aids and provide the critical services that are required for patient success. Otolaryngologists, are medical doctors who are trained to diagnose and treat diseases of the ears, nose, and throat and cancers of the head and neck. Otolaryngologists are specially qualified with at least 5 years of surgical residency training following a medical education. Many otolaryngologists work closely with audiologists who administer hearing evaluations and work with hearing aids. Finally, a hearing aid dispenser, or hearing instrument specialist, is a professional licensed to work with hearing aids. Although requirements vary from state to state, hearing-aid dispensers generally have from six months to two years of supervised training or a two-year college degree and in most states must pass licensing tests.
Some box store hearing aid centers may have audiologists on staff, but most are run by hearing aid dispensers. The Bloomberg Businessweek article reported that Costco in particular is running a program to help their employees obtain hearing aid dispenser licenses. The goal of a hearing aid dispenser is not to provide a thorough diagnostic analysis of the auditory mechanism, but rather a quick hearing screening and a hearing aid sale if a candidate presents. It doesn’t seem possible to service the volume of patients they are reporting and to provide the follow-up verifications all of which are recommended by our industry’s “best practice.” In several attempts at calling two such box stores to find out a little more about their hearing aids and practice, the phone went repeatedly to voicemail, during their stated working hours. When I eventually got through to them, they did confirm their hearing evaluation and follow-up process which, to say the least varies greatly from what we do at our practice.
Sales of hearing aids at box stores and “wanted for a test market trial” mailings that promise steaks, turkeys and pull out all sorts of tricks (which, stay tuned, will surely be a post at a later time), diminish the experience of being diagnosed in a professional setting. In order to put patients first, time is needed, hand holding is needed.
So if, convenience if your thing, (believe me, I get it), and you like to shop under one roof, and are tempted by the signs next to the hot dogs, take a moment to think. First, remember hearing aids are a process, not a product. Do you really want to take shortcuts with your hearing? Finally, ask yourself what are you (or mom, or grandpa) really getting from purchasing hearing aids where you buy tomato sauce?
HEARS to healthy, safe and SMART hearing,
Stefanie Wolf, Au.D.