Change is afoot in the hearing care industry. Big-box stores and other retailers sell hearing aids. Patients comparison shop online. If passed, the federal Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act will add the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s regulatory stamp to approved OTC devices.
As a result, hearing care practitioners have to decide whether and how to adapt their business plans. An obvious first step is to reconsider your service-delivery model. So,“bundling” the cost of hearing aids with the cost of treatment may no longer be the most productive approach.
The OTC Hearing Aid Act was reintroduced on March 20. It was authored by four US senators, including two Democrats and two Republicans. It is expected to draw bipartisan support. If the bill becomes law, FDA will be tasked with regulating the sale of OTC devices. Also, those who wish to self-select a hearing aid are already free to do so without obtaining a medical evaluation. FDA eliminated its “physician waiver” system in December.
The ultimate purpose of the act is to improve access to hearing care. Its primary intended beneficiaries are those who wish to amplify their hearing, but fear they cannot afford proper care and expensive devices.
Steve Aiken, PhD, commented on the bill for The Hearing Review. “As a profession, we have a responsibility to look for ways to minimize the impact of hearing loss for everyone,” he wrote, in part. “Access to hearing and communication is just too important to be limited on the basis of financial means.”
However, Aiken cautioned, the hearing care community should not support any service-delivery model that fails to address serious medical conditions associated with hearing loss. He listed cholesteatomas, eighth nerve tumors, and otosclerosis as examples.
Though rare, these disorders do exist, and they are unlikely to be diagnosed by a cashier at a big-box store. Audiologists will continue to serve a crucial role in the overall wellbeing of their patients. The regulatory and retail environment won’t change that. But it may change the way you bill for services.
An Intriguing Study
In May, the results of a study funded by the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders and the National Institutes of Health (NIDCD/NIH) were released. “The Effects of Service-Delivery Model and Purchase Price on Hearing-Aid Outcomes in Older Adults” was designed to compare the efficacy of two service-delivery models: audiology-based (AB) and OTC. (The study referred to the latter group as “consumer-decides” or “CD.”)
The study included 163 participants, all over age 60. As expected, participants in the audiology-based group reported the most successful outcomes. The majority (81%) said they would keep the hearing aids they tested. But more than half (55%) of the CD group also reported a positive outcome. Remarkably, more than one-third (36%) of the placebo group said the same.
AB and placebo group participants all received counseling from a qualified audiologist. The results could indicate that buyers of OTC devices still will benefit from skilled evaluation and treatment. That should come as no surprise to most hearing care practitioners. So, the only question is how best to respond.
Unwinding the Bundle
The traditional service delivery model calls for billing the cost of a hearing aid along with the initial evaluation and follow-up visits. This “bundling” of services served the hearing care industry well for decades. In light of the factors listed above, it may be time to rethink it.
Opening your practice to patients who self-select hearing aids will give you a competitive edge. Market your office as one that is willing to reward hearing loss sufferers who have researched treatment options. They will benefit from your expertise. Most of all, your practice will benefit from a more flexible revenue stream.
Offering a financing option is no less important. Audiologists and hearing aid retailers nationwide have partnered with CareCredit, a health, wellness, and personal care credit card provider. The ability to finance the cost of treatment—and the purchase of hearing aids—can make the difference for many patients.
In addition, by adopting a new service-delivery model and partnering with a financing provider, you’ll help establish that hearing care really is for everyone. As a result, you will help to promote a universally high standard of treatment for patients of all income levels.