After a long wait the FDA cleared hearing aids for over-the-counter (OTC) sales in US. Historically, many countries look to FDA clearances and adapt similar decisions not long after. Consequently, it is widely expected that OTC will be rolled out globally in the near future. OTC devices are specifically aimed at adults 18+ with mild to moderate hearing loss and is expected to be both cheaper and easier to onboard than traditional devices. Consumer advocates believe that this will bring wider access to better hearing and increase the quality of life for many more people. But for clinic owners (practice owners, clinic owners) in the hearing retail world, OTC can seem like a substantial threat. But is it really? Or is it an untapped opportunity?
A threat: cutting in the supply chain model
OTC devices will be available directly to consumers via both online channels and retail outlets. People with mild to moderate hearing loss will no longer require a visit to an Audiologist’s or other hearing care professional’s office for access to amplification. This will make the process both easier and more cost effective in underserved rural areas, low-income areas, and for younger tech-savvy but time-strapped people. These segments will see OTC as a great alternative to the traditional model. The expansion of the OTC channel over time at an international level is expected to deliver access to hearing aids for a much larger part of the hearing-impaired population globally. They will have access to the benefits of better hearing without ever interacting with an audiologist. The most relevant questions for the traditional hearing care industry are:
- Can the same margins be expected?
- Will new self-adjusting technology take over the traditional professional role?
For some segments, the answer to these questions is both no and yes, however, we need to bear in mind that currently, only around 18% of people who need a hearing solution wear one. That means that the global untapped market potential is massive. It means that OTC may lead to the creation of a completely new market, one predicted to be much larger than the traditional hearing aid market. A market that will be driven by lower prices and increased consumer appeal.
The challenges with OTC might be an opportunity for the traditional market. There are challenges for both consumers and professionals in the introduction of OTC devices. While users may see acquiring a hearing aid without the interaction of a professional as a good thing, it could mean that serious underlying health issues could be missed. It also means that they could be purchasing a hearing device to fix an earwax or middle ear problem.
The devices are self-fitting, which means users will have to be at least tech-savvy. More than that, some users may have issues with the simple act of placing the hearing devices properly in the ear. When they do get them into their ear properly, there is also the concern that they may have the volume too high, damaging their hearing further.
However, the National Academy of Science argues that the unmet, widespread need for hearing aids outweighs the few cases that may benefit from a professional fitting. In most cases, once you have a hearing loss, any fitting is better than none.
What should you as a hearing center owner do?
You can decide to do nothing, take a watching brief and see what happens with the incoming OTC products or you could become actively involved. Integrating the best OTC devices into your product offerings and making sure that hearing impaired people wanting to buy the devices are offered decent solutions and a proper hearing examination.
We know that a good hearing aid fitting requires precise measurement of hearing ability, the right solution for the hearing loss and a suitable physical fitting for each ear. In the brave new world of OTC, consumers will be offered this through some sort of coaching app or perhaps a virtual support system.
It makes sense for professionals to offer services to OTC users who simply can’t manage. You can also build services around OTC products. You could use ideas such as:
To sell hearing examinations
A good fitting requires precise measurements of the hearing ability, the right type of hearing solution for the hearing loss, and a physical fitting to each ear.
Time is money, an old but true adage, in business, your time is worth money, and you should not provide hearing examinations to people who are interested in OTC for free. It may be possible soon to partner with online vendors of OTC solutions. It would be of benefit to the end-user and vendor to have a professional ensure that ears are clear, there is a hearing loss, and the solution can help.
During these examinations you might find that a traditional solution makes sense. This can be communicated to the end-user and you may begin to nurture them with relevant information.
To sell OTC solutions from your clinics or online
Selling OTC devices from your clinics might sound a bit off. They are not the same quality, they do not have the same features etc. The fact is, that no matter how you or your business feels about OTC hearing aids, there will be a market for these devices.
There will be consumers with hearing loss searching for them and willing to buy them. Integrating the best of them into your offerings will be an important strategy for your business.
To sell hearing services or fitting appointments to OTC users
Fitting a hearing aid (or OTC) is not easy and can hardly be done by the end-user. Since hearing is objective, they might feel that they have a good fit, but they do not know any alternative and they might have a poor experience. You can help them by using information from the hearing examination to provide the client the best possible outcome of the OTC product. You should of course charge for this service.
Providing these services to OTC users allows you to connect to them and more importantly, be relevant to them in their journey. As their hearing loss progresses, you will be their trusted source of information and service. They will come to you if they feel they need to progress to a more traditional amplification solution.
Inserting them as clients in your Practice Management Software, you can treat them as any other client and stay connected with them. You might have special communication and service flows for these clients to make sure that they are following up on the progress of their hearing loss and that you can make the most of these clients.
OTC is a challenge, but it represents opportunities, it is up to each business owner to decide how they deal with it. The most dangerous thing is to ignore it.