Consumers value professional care in a post-OTC hearing aid world
The way Americans shop is changing dramatically, and hearing care is not immune. In 2017, the closing of hundreds of brick-and-mortar stores reflects, for better or worse, the changing retail landscape. Also this year, the bipartisan over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aid bill was signed into law. This bill will allow consumers to buy certain types of hearing aids directly and without purchasing through a hearing care provider. It will also allow devices previously prohibited from being called hearing aids to be labeled as such for marketing purposes. As a result, we anticipate changes in the way people shop for hearing aids and in the way hearing care is delivered. However, those changes may be years away if the results of our latest survey hold true for the larger population.
In April 2017, Healthy Hearing conducted a nationwide survey to understand consumers' attitudes about over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids. Based on the results of the OTC survey, we conducted a second survey to better understand how consumers prefer to shop for hearing aids, their priorities when seeking hearing care and how important hearing care providers' services are to the overall process.
The hearing care purchase (HCP) survey was conducted in September of 2017 and included 705 participants aged 50 years and older. Similar to the previous survey, participants were from a nationwide panel of more than 30 million people that is balanced to be representative of the US population. The large sample size resulted in a small (3.69 percent) margin of error. A small margin of error indicates that our survey is likely to be a representative sample of Americans in this age group.
Of the 705 respondents, 48 (6.81 percent) reported that they already wear hearing aids and this group was routed through a different series of survey question. We are reporting on the responses of the participants that did not wear hearing aids to better understand potential first-time buyers of hearing aids.
The cost of hearing aids
Cost is a significant factor when considering the purchase of hearing aids. That hearing aids are expensive is no surprise to Healthy Hearing readers. A look at the comments under our daily Facebook posts prove you are keenly aware that good hearing devices can cost several thousands of dollars with no help from most insurance. Several of our HCP survey questions focused on the area of cost.
Many hearing care professionals bundle the cost of the devices with all related services, from testing and selection to follow-up care. And, most of our HCP survey respondents, 65.18 percent of them, expect the price of hearing aids to include unlimited follow-up care.
How much do consumers want to pay for hearing care devices? As a part of our OTC hearing aid survey, we asked how much participants would be willing to pay for OTC hearing aids if they included absolutely no related care, and the answer surprised us: 81.5 percent said they would pay no more than $100 each for the devices alone. In the HCP survey, we asked a similar question about traditional hearing aids. When asked how much respondents would be willing to pay for hearing aids (not over-the-counter) if they included no services or follow-up from a professional, 80.84 percent said they would pay no more than $500.
These answers show consistency in consumer perception of how valuable any hearing aid is, by itself, without service - not very valuable at all. However, the HCP survey's question about price suggests a fundamental misunderstanding by consumers about today's traditional hearing aids. Today's hearing aids are technological marvels, but they are worth absolutely nothing without the services of a hearing care professional. If they are not initially programmed and fit to your specific hearing loss, they are nothing more than a piece of plastic with a circuit board inside.
Over-the-counter hearing aids, however, would be designed to bypass the services of a hearing care professional and could feasibly provide some benefit to consumers who prefer a money-saving, do-it-yourself approach. Some products may include smartphone apps that can perform a rudimentary hearing test, online chat associates to help with product selection and fine-tuning you can do yourself through your home computer.
The value of professional hearing care
In an age where consumers eschew the personal expertise and guidance offered by retail sales associates in favor of adding products to an online shopping cart, consumers still place a high importance on the services offered by hearing care professionals in the hearing aid buying experience.
When it comes to a professionally-administered hearing test, a full 88.33 percent of the respondents to the HCP survey said it is either "very important" or "absolutely important." A majority, 85.32 percent, said having a hearing care professional select the right devices for their specific needs is either "very important" or "absolutely important." Finally, 83.14 percent said follow-up care provided by a hearing care professional is "very important" or "absolutely important" to success with hearing aids. This is consistent with the findings of our OTC hearing aid survey where more than 93 percent of respondents said it was either “very important” or “absolutely important” to have hearing care professional select, fit and program hearing devices.
If we break down the hearing care service component into three parts - professional testing, selection of appropriate devices and follow-up care, both the OTC and HCP survey respondents agreed that all three components were important to the process of getting a hearing aid.
In fact, these survey findings are consistent with earlier studies that prove the value of professional hearing care. A study examining the relationship between hearing care professionals and hearing aid wearer success found that wearers with below-average hearing aid success were less likely to have had counseling or other tools from a hearing care professional.
Trust and credibility matter
It may seem obvious that you are willing to trust another consumer more than a company or advertiser when it comes to making important purchases, and research backs up this assumption. Consumers place a growing importance on word of mouth recommendations when they are shopping for any product. The HCP survey results bear this out since more than 76 percent of the respondents said they would seek recommendations from either their physician or a trusted friend if they were looking for a hearing care professional.
Even opinions from people you've never met can carry weight when searching for hearing care. In fact, nearly 80 percent of our survey participants said they would look for and consider online reviews of a hearing clinic before they would schedule that first appointment. Healthy Hearing has long known about the importance of unbiased reviews. We have more than 3000 consumer-reviewed hearing clinics in our directory so you can learn about them before making your important decision.
Finally, when asked about respondents' priorities in selecting a hearing care professional, professional credentials and trusted recommendations are what mattered most to our HCP survey group. When asked to rank order their priorities, 41.79 percent ranked professional credentials as the most important factor followed by 31.58 percent who said a personal recommendation from a friend or family member was most important. All other factors - reputation for low price, convenient hours, location and online reviews - trailed significantly when it came to importance.
Flexible delivery options
In the U.S., market research says 33 percent of those who need hearing aids get them. In other countries where hearing aid cost is subsidized by the government, you would expect everyone who needs hearing aids to have them. However, this isn't the case. Recent research asserts that Norway - where hearing aids are fully covered by the government - had the highest hearing aid adoption rate of just over 42 percent. That still leaves more than half of the people who need hearing aids without them.
There are indeed other barriers to acceptance such as negative stigma associated with hearing aids, consumers not knowing where to start if they need hearing aids and other barriers that are not well-understood. When we asked our HCP survey participants if they would consider buying OTC hearing aids to save money, only 11.81 percent of participants said they would be either "very likely" or "extremely likely" to do so. So, it seems that many consumers will still avoid hearing aids even if they can be purchased without professional guidance and service.
The OTC hearing aid legislation is intended to improve consumer access to hearing aids. The results of our HCP and OTC surveys seem to indicate that consumers are looking for professional advice with flexibility in both the type of devices offered and pricing structures around them. If the goals of the OTC legislation are to be achieved, hearing professionals need to find new ways to integrate OTC devices into their practices and examine new delivery models that allow for the flexibility of costs and a stronger emphasis on the value of professional care.
Survey questions and demographics
Q1: Do you currently wear hearing aids?
Q2: If you had a hearing loss, how likely would you be to buy over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids and bypass the services of a hearing healthcare professional to save money?
Q3: How would you find a hearing healthcare professional? Please choose just one.
Q4: Would you look for and read online reviews about the practice before scheduling an appointment?
Q5: What would be the most important factors in selection your hearing care professional? Please rank factors below with 1 being the most important and 6 being the least important.
Q6: Would you expect the price of a hearing aids purchase to include unlimited follow-up office visits?
Q7: If the total price of hearing aids did not include an initial hearing test/consultation or any follow up visits, how much would you be willing to spend for them?
Q8: How important do you think it is to have a professionally-administered test and consultation in the process of buying hearing aids?
Q9: How important do you think it is to have a hearing care professional help you select the right hearing aids for your individual needs?
Q10: How important do you think the follow-up care given by a professional is to success with wearing hearing aids?
Q11: Is there anything else you'd like us to know about your opinions of hearing healthcare provider services or shopping for hearing aids? (This question allowed for open-ended text responses.)
Q12: What is your age?
Q13: What is your gender?
Q14: How much total combined money did all members of your HOUSEHOLD earn last year?
Q15: US region
Q16: Device type