Updated: Nov 22, 2022
You are tempted by attractive prices that you find online for high-tech, rechargeable and streaming hearing aids and wish to save some money, I totally get that. Some are on a very tight budget and search to buy hearing aids on eBay. But you are also concerned about what if the sound of the hearing aids is not good, what if the fitting doesn't feel right and what if they don't sound clear and natural. Is it safe to buy hearing aids online? How the audiologist would fit my hearing aid if he or she has never seen me in person? Would the fitting, the feel of the hearing aids and the sound of them be natural if I buy my hearing aids online?
My short answer to all the above questions is yes and no. Continue reading this short article to know the advantages and disadvantages of buying hearing aids online and how you can reduce your risk of falling into trouble when you buy a pair of advanced hearing aids online.
What is the essence of a good hearing care service?
In order to understand the benefits and risks of buying hearing aids online, we need to set the ground rules for a quality hearing care service. Only then would we be able to realise what part of a hearing care health service is associated with the hearing aids, the expertise of the audiologist and the issues around these two factors.
First and foremost, you need to appreciate that in your journey to hearing better, at times you are a patient receiving a health care service, but also a customer who purchases a medical device in this case your hearing aids. Understanding this dual role for the hearing care patient is critical in assessing the options. For sake of comparison imagine when you get a cold it is your GP who looks after your health by providing examinations, tests and assessments, and it is your pharmacist who looks after supplying the medicines you need to get well. In the case of hearing loss, this is the audiologist who provides the hearing test and management plan for you to hear better, and the supplier of the hearing aids is often the same audiologist. The difference between these two cases is a. the management cycle of hearing care is much longer compared to a cold and b. the investment in the hearing aids is much bigger than the cost of medicine for a cold and c. is that the hearing aids might require some basic support and maintenance to be in good shape and provide a good, loud, clean and natural sound over their lifetime (usually 5-7 years).
Let's take a closer look at the attributes of a quality hearing care service:
A comprehensive hearing test - I cannot emphasise enough the importance of the initial hearing test and examination. A comprehensive hearing test would include an otoscopy (visual examination of your ear canal and eardrum), a complete case history, and a pure tone audiometry followed by a speech test. A combination of all these tests may suggest that your hearing problem may be due to a pathological issue that requires further investigation by your GP or ENT team. Such a comprehensive hearing test can only be done by a qualified audiologist either at a clinic or through a domiciliary home visit hearing test.
Unbiased advice on the management plan and choices of hearing aids - If the outcome of the hearing test indicates that your hearing loss does not need a follow-up with your GP (e.g. it is due to ageing factors) then a management plan could include using hearing aids. Now your role shifts from a patient to a consumer. As a consumer ready to purchase a medical device you look for the best features combined with the best support at the best price, right? While most of the national chains such as Specsavers, Boots and Amplifon promote a specific brand of hearing aids (for commercial reasons), it is only the independent hearing aid audiologists who are well-positioned to provide an unbiased opinion about the fit-for-purpose hearing aids. Furthermore, you could expect a lower price for the very same brand and model of hearing aids from independent audiologists versus multi-national high street chains, simply because of the much bigger overhead cost that running a business at a national level endures. Online suppliers would certainly be able to provide a more competitive cost for the very same hearing aids to you, however without a face-to-face meeting they won't be able to provide a full range of hearing aids to you, e.g. they cannot make custom hearing aids to you, simply because they cannot take impressions from your ear canal.
Warranty and aftercare - Up to a few years ago what you paid for a pair of hearing aids would certainly include the follow-up rehabs, repair and adjustment of the hearing aid over their warranty lifetime. This is still the ground rule if you purchase your hearing aids from a brick-and-mortar care provider. Other emerging aftercare models introduced by online players are altering this model in different ways. For example, the warranty period that the online platforms offer may be shorter, or some expect the customer to pay for the return shipment of the hearing aids if/when they need a service or repair. As a consumer, you wish to receive an extended warranty for hearing aids. Also, you wish that the supplier pays for the shipment cost of the aids to and from the manufacturer to your address.
What factors have changed and why do patients are considering online shopping for hearing aids?
Just like many other sectors in the business, the health sector is evolving with the development of new technologies. Here are a few main trends in hearing care that I have been observing:
Higher awareness about hearing loss - Once a problem of the elderly, these days hearing loss is not something that people are shying away from. The level of public awareness has been steadily on the rise, which brings the average age of hearing aid users lower. This brings in consumers who are more tech-savvy than before in this domain.
Tech-savvy consumers - I am impressed with the level of digital awareness and comfort in some of the age groups that I help with for their hearing test and hearing aid consultation every day. Hearing aid users are more and more comfortable with technology, rechargeable hearing aids, Bluetooth connectivity and streaming features in advanced hearing aids. Patients are becoming more and more comfortable try adjusting their hearing aids over a teleconferencing session.
Telecommunication - Manufacturers and suppliers in the health industry are building digital capabilities to enhance the patient experience and to allow some (if not all) of the initial session, triaging, follow-up and rehab sessions to happen online. Call it telecare, remote care or any other term, today technology is making a remote connection between the patient and the professional health care provider a reality, and it is not only hearing care. Pick up the phone and call your GP. It's very likely that you will be trained over the phone, followed up with a Zoom meeting before the GP even sees you.
Technology advancement in hearing aids - Hearing aids are becoming smaller, smarter, more connected and literally more involved in your life than only with your hearing loss. You can answer your phone calls and you can stream music and soundtrack of movies on your hearing aids. New hearing aids like Starkey Evolv 2400 can remind you of your medicines, they can help locate your misplaced smartphone, can keep track of your health and can even translate speech into 27 languages.
Consumers are more price-sensitive - This is a fact that the gap between the poor and rich is widening. More and more people struggle with living costs. It is no surprise that when a patient with hearing loss decides to buy a pair of hearing aids do online research and perhaps do more than a bit of shopping around. After all, this is a 5-7 years investment and it's not a small investment for many.
Is the UK hearing aid market very different from elsewhere?
The health domain in the UK similar to the EU is more regulated, at least compared to many countries including the US. The OTC hearing aids (over-the-counter) have received the go-ahead in the US and it is very likely to see an emergence of these types of products before the end of 2022. The OTC products are designed for mild to moderate hearing loss and mostly are self-fitted. They may not be the top of the range in terms of sound quality and functionality, but certainly will be "good enough" for a part of the consumer market who need a quick fix for their mild-to-moderate hearing loss. I would imagine that the OTC hearing aids hit the UK market sometime in 2023-2024.
Nevertheless, still in the UK, there is a firm regulatory structure in place by HCPC, BSA, BAA, BSHAA, and NICE for the service expectations from the hearing care providers. The responsibility is left with the hearing care providers, however, the consumer would have the freedom to decide how he or she would like to receive the hearing care.
What are the advantages of buying hearing aids online?
Perhaps the biggest drive for those who purchase hearing aids online is the price. Online platforms offering hearing aids at discounted prices are attractive to those who would like to buy top-of-the-range hearing aids (rechargeable, streaming, speech enhancement,...) but at a lower price compared to the national chains and independent audiology boutiques. You could buy a pair of Phonak Audeo P90 on HearingNow below £2,300 while the same hearing aid would cost you more than £2,800 in Boots or Specsavers hearing care and more than £4,000 in a classy high street central London audiologist. All the above options to purchase a pair of high-end Phonak Paradise P90 offer 4 or 5 years extended warranty and free aftersale care.