By Stefani Kim
For Alison Vega, AuD, CCC-A, FAAA, a career in audiology initially seemed rooted in practicality, but she quickly became enamored with what has now become a passionate undertaking. Like many young people grappling with the seemingly endless array of potential career choices during college, Vega’s path took a meandering turn along the way to job fulfillment.
While an undergraduate student at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash, Vega took classes that would prepare her to eventually become a high school guidance counselor. However, she quickly realized that career success would hinge upon distinguishing herself among a crowd of budding psychology majors, many of whom might be competing with her for a limited number of jobs.
“All of my psychology classes were 300-400 students and, after about a quarter of that, I started looking around thinking, ‘I’m not sure how we’re all going to get jobs’ because, at that point, I was not PhD-driven. I thought if I really wanted to practice I probably would need a PhD… I started to think ‘What else could I do in a counseling type of field that would be more specialized?’” said Vega.
While she mulled different options, Vega’s attention was piqued by the field of audiology after she read a Time Magazine feature that included the study of hearing in its list of Top 10 professions for the decade.
“I thought ‘Well, might as well give it a shot. I don’t know anything about it,’” said Vega. “I took an Introduction to Communicative Disorders class and it was just love at first sight. I was learning about the hearing system and how that works, and it was the science, the art, and the counseling and all that put together, and I thought ‘This is great for me.’’’
After she graduated from Western Washington in 1999 with a BA in Speech Pathology and Audiology, Vega worked with an audiologist at the Hearing, Speech, and Deaf (HSDC) Center in Seattle, Wash, where she discovered she loved the “day-to-day aspect” of being an audiologist. A few years later, she entered an AuD graduate program at Utah State University in Logan, Utah, one of three students in the newly-created concentration. As part of her curriculum, Vega completed a residency with an Ear, Nose, and Throat group in Olympia, Wash, and, in 2011, she opened the first of what would eventually become three offices in the greater Olympia area.
Vega credits “happenstance” with two of her satellite offices coming into fruition at the same time, though the idea for the offices was conceived in 2014 when she noticed a void in conveniently-located hearing care clinics serving retirement communities in her hometown, and she saw the opportunity to better serve potential clients.
Another moment of “happenstance” occurred around the same time, when Capital Medical Center in Olympia contacted Vega to ask if she’d like to become its official contract audiologist, serving a network of 150 doctors; she happily accepted without hesitation.
“One of my tried and true tools is that when an opportunity comes, my first answer is ‘yes,’“ said Vega. “And I say yes first and then I try to figure it out second. If it fails, I will probably learn something from it and if it succeeds, well, I’ll be successful.”
But happenstance alone doesn’t explain Vega’s success. Much of it can be attributed to her willingness to go above and beyond for her clients, in an increasingly automated world.
Passion for Your Work
“I’m really, really passionate about what I do and my patients comment on that all the time,” said Vega. “They can see that I love what I do, and that I think it’s important. And I honestly think about that every day as I’m coming to work. I have to let that shine forward because patients want that. They can get hearing aids anywhere now but when they come in and they see my staff smile and we care about them, most of my patients [will] hug me…they want to have that personal relationship and I think that’s really what sets me apart when I think about my competition,” she said.
“Even other audiologists, or other doctors of audiology, and other hearing aid stores in town, everybody’s nice—I don’t know anybody who’s mean—but I really make an effort to let my patients know that I truly care about them. I care about their experience and their hearing loss, and how we’re going to get through these problems, and I listen to them really well. I’m always trying to make sure that they get customized care, not just the cookie-cutter [treatment plan],” she said.
Attention to Detail
Even though many might rank going to the doctor low on the list of things they enjoy doing, Vega strives to make their experience as stress-free as possible.
“It’s very calming here and I want people to feel calm and supported and pleasant,” said Vega. “We don’t have a cluttered waiting room and I have Hearing Health Network playing on the TV…one patient told me this week it was like going to the spa, coming to her appointment, because she’d come in, have a cup of coffee and read National Geographic,” she said, laughing.
And, like many hearing care practitioners dealing with the uncertainties of the market as well as competition from “Big Box” retail, Vega is looking at ways to remain profitable while balancing her patient’s sensitivities to cost and value. In her practice, she has taken a “modified unbundling approach” where she allows patients to pay-as-they-go for customized follow-up services after the initial hearing aid purchase (which has fitting fees built into the cost).
“I want to be as transparent with my patients as possible. I want them to know what they’re getting,” Vega said.
Though treating her patient’s hearing issues remains Vega’s top priority, she’s all too aware of the initial sticker shock some patients may experience when presented with the cost of treatment.
Financing Treatment Plans
“If it ends up being that they have hearing loss that can be corrected with hearing aids, I will go through a brief description about that and usually they’ll say, ‘Oh God, how much do they cost?’ and so we’ll look at their insurance benefit and things like that,” said Vega.
“If I say it’s going to be $4,000 for these hearing aids, usually I’ll gauge by the look on their face whether or not that’s a good number or a bad number. And then I’ll quickly follow-up with, ‘And we do offer payment plans.’ That usually helps to settle that panic if there is panic on their face. They say ‘Okay great, what do you offer?’ ‘Well, we offer CareCredit’…I let them know CareCredit is a third-party payment plan option, and we have one of their iPads in our waiting room and we can easily grab the tablet for you and you can even find out yourself if you qualify for that, and it’s 0% financing,” she said.
But, even for patients who are able to pay for treatment out-of-pocket, many are averse to parting with a large sum upfront, particularly if they are retired and on a fixed income. She estimates approximately 20-30% of her patients choose financing to pay for their hearing care treatment, making CareCredit a critical component of her business.
“There’s less of a risk if they finance it because it’s third-party and they didn’t give all their money to somebody—they only gave maybe a couple hundred bucks—and that’s all they have to worry about getting back if it doesn’t work. I think it makes it easier too for people who are just not sure if this is even going to work for them. And we find that a lot of people want to do it,” said Vega.
Vega’s enthusiasm for audiology is not limited to her practice. She is a member of both the Junior League of Olympia and the Thurston County Chamber of Commerce and serves on the Washington State Board of Hearing and Speech. In addition, she volunteers to do hearing screenings at her children’s school and is a consultant to the Washington Center for Performing Arts.
“I really believe that relationship-building is important,” said Vega. “You can’t just go to the networking groups and the rotaries, I did all of that and that was great, but what I found has been most successful was really actively getting involved in my community and people seeing me out, and not seeing me once or twice, but seeing me really involved,” she said.
Given the enormous changes taking shape in the hearing care industry, Vega’s success stands out as a testament to both her entrepreneurial instincts and destiny in finding her dream career.
“I’m proud that I’ve landed on my feet after making some mistakes with the economy, the ups and the downs. I’ve now survived two election years. I have weathered the storm…I’ve done it with a smile on my face. I do take on a lot of risk..and it has worked out for me for the most part,” she said.
Alison Vega, AuD, CCC-A, FAAA
Ascent Audiology and Hearing
365 Cooper Point Road NW, #102
Olympia, WA 98502
130 Marvin Road
Lacey, WA 98503
Capital Medical Center, Olympia, WA
Stefani Kim is an associate editor at MEDQOR.