by Christo Fourie
So a lot of what is said here is my educated opinion and most definitely a rant.
The problem with the hearing aid industry, particularly in Australia, is that large international organisations and manufacturers dominate the industry with over 80% of the market share (I'll refer to them as the big boys from hereon), while independent hearing care providers, those who became hearing care professionals in order to help people like yourself, make up less than 10% of the market.
Large organisations seem to be operated by accountants and lawyers and have a focus on profitability. Independent providers generally focus on client outcomes and high levels of care.
A challenge for all providers, big and small in recent years, has been the change in consumer behaviour. Rather than relying on a "salesperson" to give you all the information, you now tend to do extensive research before you even contact a business. So control has shifted from the business to you.
This is a very empowering change made possible by the Internet.
Another trend is that baby boomers, as a generation, are reaching an age where the prevalence of hearing loss is much greater. This means more potential business for everyone involved in the industry. Baby boomers are also a generation who, unlike their parents, don't just believe everything they are fed by medical professionals and salespeople.
You like to be well informed, particularly on matters relating to your health and well-being, before making any decisions, and rightfully so.
The logical answer to the industry would be to make sure that we, as a whole, put out trustworthy, and where possible unbiased and transparent information out there
This way you can decide who is best suited to serve you the way you'd like to be served. Unfortunately, this approach seems to be rare. Rather than trying to empower you some in our industry seem to, from my perspective, to be actively trying to disempower you through various strategies. They seem to be terrified of letting go of control.
Due to the growing size of the potential market of people needing hearing help, there are also a lot of less-than-ethical outsiders coming into the market, flogging wares which are marketed as hearing aids, that actually aren't. This creates a lot of noise and makes it very difficult for you to find the information you need and to know what is true and what is not.
This article has been written to give you my, an industry insider, view on the different "practices" that I have noticed of late and how you might choose to navigate them.
Own Brand hearing aids
A big issue for many retailers has been that the empowered consumer likes to shop around. This is particularly true for consumers who have not done their research before their first hearing test. Some companies' entire acquisition strategy is focused on getting people in before they even know they have hearing loss. This might be done via cold calling or free hearing aid trial ads. Their clinicians then need to "sell" to those people before they have an opportunity to do further research.
The problem they had was that people would order the hearing aids, look them up online and then cancel the order as they realised they were charged too much. These companies then started other tactics such as renaming just the model to make price shopping more difficult. The hearing aid brand remained the same, but some consumers figured out which models they were and they still kept losing customers.
The latest approach, which only the largest of companies can accomplish, is to purchase hearing aids in bulk from the big hearing aid manufacturers and have the relabeled to something unique to them. This way, there is nowhere else apart from that specific retailer, where you can get that relabeled model. The manufacturers also don't sell these rebranded models to other retailers, so they are also in the dark as to what the hearing aid is exactly.
This method allows those retailers to do one or all of the following:
- Sell their relabeled hearing aids for more than the fully featured branded model sells in the general market
- Sell relabeled, defeatured models of the brand name products which they purchase for less than the branded product
- Sell out-of-date models that they can buy and sell for cheaper than better-performing current known models. The consumer might be told that this cheaper relabeled model performs as well as the current, more expensive, branded models
This issue is such a big issue for consumers, that I wrote a much more detailed article, naming names. Read our in-depth article about White-label hearing aids and how they might affect you.
Why is this disempowering?
- You have no information on what you are buying, except for the information the seller is willing to divulge. Control is back FIRMLY in the seller's hands.
- You are unable to compare apples to apples, taking away your ability to make an informed choice
- You could end up with an underperforming, older, defeatured model for the same price or more expensive than the latest fully featured branded model. This is an opportunity cost; limiting the potential benefit you could be enjoying from a branded model at the same price.
- Other clinicians who do not have access to these rebranded models cannot help you find the comparable model accurately. So you cannot judge if you received good value.
- In some cases, you may not be able to get these hearing aids adjusted anywhere else, locking you into a relationship that may not suit you in the future (remember, hearing aids last around 5 years).
How to avoid this trick:
- Only purchase brand-name hearing aids. The currently available brand name hearing aids in Australia are Phonak, Oticon, Unitron, Widex, Signia, Bernafon, Sonic Innovations, Hansaton, Starkey, GN Resound, and Beltone.
- Check out the brands listed on the retailer's website before visiting a clinic
- Google the model quoted to you in the clinic. If you do not find it listed anywhere except associated with that retailer, you are likely dealing with a rebrand situation.
- Make sure you know the brand and model. Model descriptions like Platinum, Gold, Silver, Bronze, Diamond, Premium, Advance, and Ultra without the model number might be indications of attempts to hide the model and avoid price shopping. Be wary if you Google that exact model as quoted and it does not show up on the manufacturer's page described similarly.
- Don't take their word for it if they say it is the same as X brand and model. Ask for written proof in the form of spec and feature sheets and do your research. Don't sign anything before you are clear about what you are getting.
"Free" services offering to help you find an audiologist
At first glance this looks like a fine idea, especially considering they often advertise that they work with the best independent audiologists in Australia and they can help you find the best deals.
This would be great if all this was true. Unfortunately, services like these appear to make money by referring you to clinicians who pay them for the referral. This in itself is not bad, but the fact is, they aren't necessarily the "best" audiologists, nor do they work with all the audiologists in Australia, nor do they necessarily offer the best hearing aid pricing in Australia.
Why is this disempowering?
- They give you a false sense of security, potentially reducing your inclination to do your research
- You may not end up with the best solution from the best clinician in your area
- Some of the clinics subscribing to these referral sites could be mainly diagnostic clinics, with little hearing aid experience. So outcomes may vary greatly.
How to avoid this trick?
- Make sure the name of the clinic is the same as the name of the company you first contacted.
- Check their locations on the company website. If they are vague for your region - i.e. you cannot find the specific address for the clinic location you are interested in, be wary.
- Do a Google search to see if there are any other providers around you
- Check the clinic you have been referred to's rating on Google maps - do they have plenty of good detailed client reviews?
- Check the clinic you have been referred to's website. Do they even list the brand you are interested in?
Fake Hearing Aids
There have always been online retailers selling devices claiming to be hearing aids. These days, particularly on Facebook, there seem to be so many more. They make promises to outperform hearing aids costing thousands more or promote the latest breakthrough in hearing technology for less than a thousand dollars.
These so-called "hearing aids" are nothing more than cheap amplifiers, bought for around $20 on Alibaba and resold with aggressive Facebook marketing. They rely on the fact that the product is so cheap relative to real hearing aids, that most people will try them, but that the effort to return them if unhappy, is so great that most just give up as the effort is not worth the loss.
Dr Cliff Olson has a video on one of these companies here. Many others follow similar trends, however:
Why is this disempowering?
- You are tricked into purchasing a product that has a low likelihood of working for you, which you are unlikely to bother returning
- You risk further damage to your hearing
- You might be put off real hearing aids, missing out on the life-altering benefits a properly fit real hearing aid could bring
How to avoid this trick:
- If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Real hearing aids generally cost more than a few hundred dollars and come with professional fitting.
- Stick to know hearing aid brands: Phonak, Oticon, Signia, Resound, Beltone, Widex, Unitron, Starkey, Bernafon, Sonic Innovations, and Hansaton.
- Avoid buying "hearing aids" directly from Facebook without an appointment (either in person or via telehealth) with a hearing professional as part of the process.
This one is interesting as the ACCC considers grey imports to be good for the consumer as it drives prices down. They do, however, get involved if the warranty and return conditions are not the same as the Australian equivalent.
On the flip side, hearing aids are also considered to be a medical product by the Therapeutic Goods Administration which considers the import of medical equipment for resale illegal.
Some smaller retailers appear to have started selling brand-name hearing aids, which they have sourced directly from overseas retailers without being the legal sponsor of the product in Australia.
They then sell these aids directly online to consumers, or through their clinic at impressive discounts. But if you look at the small print, they offer no change-of-mind refunds and require you to return the aids to them for warranty concerns. They also retain the right to deny any warranty claim.
Why is this disempowering?
- The pricing looks attractive but often does not include the service needed to get the most out of the product. So this "illegal" import may actually end up costing you more than the real thing.
- You may be misled into thinking it is a good deal when in truth, it isn't
- Normally when you have warranty concerns you take it to your provider, which may in this case not be the company that sold it to you for a fix. It has been reported that people have had local warranty claims denied when sending these aids for repair via the local channels as they missed the fine print.
- It relies on telling you only half-truths, hoping the price alone will sway you
- The business selling these may not be in business when warranty claims are required as they are a small local business, pretending to be a large online retailer.
- They don't allow you to change your mind about the purchase. Hearing aids take time to get used to and the product you bought may not give the optimal outcome. Normal clinics allow exchanges and refunds due to a change of mind as each person is different.
- They hide the fact that they are using Grey Imports - a lack of transparency
How to avoid this trick:
- Don't purchase hearing aids online
- Ask about the warranty - can any retailer deal with it on your behalf? (not only the person selling it to you)
- Do you have the option to exchange the hearing aid or return it for a full refund if you change your mind? - usually 30 -60 days
- Contact us to check the hearing aid serial number with the local supplier if you are in doubt
- Avoid online stores selling only top-end (premium) models or those where the prices are thousands of dollars cheaper than the nearest competitor - these are the models where the most profit can be made through parallel importing
Hearing aids can make a massively positive impact on your life. Unfortunately, the industry does have a few players who are trying to disempower you as there are great profits to be had for those doing so. Not everyone in the industry is out to get you through.
Always do your own research and be aware of any trickery.
I would also recommend reading the Hearing Aid Buyers Guide for Self-Funded Australians. It contains everything you need to empower yourself and navigate this industry like an expert.