Hearing impaired man working with laptop and mobile phone at home or office
Now that President Trump has signed the Over-The-Counter Hearing Aid Act into law, hearing companies are advancing towards the starting blocks for what’s shaping up to be a new race to solve hearing loss. That race most likely will include a diverse range of businesses from small hearing aid manufacturers (such as Intricon and Sebotek), hearables companies (including Bose, Doppler Labs, and Nuheara), and hearing amplification app designers (such as Samsung Galaxy’s Adapt Sound).
Before sprinting ahead, however, companies need to assess the role of patient engagement in their go-to-market strategies. As an expert in patient marketing and engagement, a hearing health advocate, and a person with a lifelong hearing loss, I recommend that device companies enhance their product offering with coaching and support across the patient lifecycle of living with hearing loss.
By 2020, close to 45 million people in the United States will suffer from mild to moderate hearing loss, with 40 million of them over 50, according to a study published by JAMA. The OTC Act, a provision of the Food and Drug Administration Reauthorization Act, directs the FDA to create a new class of OTC hearing aids for adults with mild to moderate loss. Current high prices for hearing aids, limited distribution by audiologists and dispensers, and hearing aid adoption rates of less than 20 percent all played a role in catalyzing the legislation.
Estimates from my company, Auditory Insight, show that a 5 percentage point uptick in the adoption rate would yield approximately $1 billion in incremental U.S. industry revenue at retail, assuming an average price of only $300 a device. However, lowering prices and broadening distribution, while necessary conditions, are not sufficient in and of themselves to create a marked, sustainable increase in the adoption rate.
The companies who will succeed at delivering on the OTC Act’s promise will engage with patients. But here’s one critical insight: selling hearing aids is not a single transaction but rather, a linked series of patient-centered processes. Whether marketing hearing aids, hearables, or hearing apps, effective companies will help patients come to terms with their hearing loss, evaluate hearing amplification options, transition to their new device, and incorporate their chosen device into their lives.
During each of these processes, patients benefit from support and coaching, ideally provided by hearing coaches and supplemented by apps. To better manage costs, I envision a hearing coaches as trained care coordinators, supervised by a company audiologist.
Here are some recommendations for patient engagement strategies by lifecycle stage:
Stigma and acceptance coaching
Many patients with hearing loss deny their condition because they fear being perceived as old, ineffective, unsociable, and even comical. Device companies’ sales process needs to incorporate opportunities for people to learn about the significant risks for not treating hearing loss, as well as the opportunities for wearing amplification, in an informative, low-key way. Videos, webinars, and offers to speak to a hearing coach, with the goal of providing information as opposed to pitching the product, are crucial to break through the stigma and help patients come to terms with their hearing losses.
Does the patient work, and which hearing challenges—such as large group meetings, conference calls, or excessive noise exposure —figure into their workday? Which of the patient’s sports, fitness activities, or social pursuits create hearing difficulties? A well-designed qualifying app on a website or in-store kiosk, with the option to request live help from a hearing coach, would enable device companies to recommend the most appropriate product. Just as importantly, understanding the patient’s unique set of needs lays the groundwork for the coaching that follows to ensure adoption.
Transition period goal setting
The first 30 days in experiencing new levels of amplification are a vulnerable time for patients. The brain needs to adjust to the new sound level, which can feel disorienting and even painful. Patients who do not successfully weather the transition often conclude that the device does not work, stuffing it in a drawer. During this transition period, companies should work with patients to establish goals for wearing the product, either through an app or a few, focused sessions with a hearing coach.
Maintenance and repair help
Hearing aids and hearables are small electronic products. They can be puzzling for the less technology savvy, especially for seniors, for whom the incidence of hearing loss skyrockets to 45 percent for people aged 70 to 74. Is the hearing aid broken, or does the battery or wax guard simply need to be changed? Is the hearable simply not inserted in the ear properly? Patients need help with these basic questions.
Work accommodation counseling
Reveal, don’t conceal hearing loss in the workplace, recommends Holly Cohen, a hearing health advocate with over 25 years’ experience as a career coach. Because hearing aids and hearables improve but do not completely restore the hearing function, patients who share their hearing loss with co-workers are ultimately more productive employees. Modifications in the workplace, such as a high-quality speakerphone, an FM system in the conference room, can augment hearing aids and hearables. Targeted coaching, through an app or a live coach, would guide patients in identifying the most effective modifications and requesting them in a productive manner.
Social interaction counseling
In the same vein, patients who inform and remind family and friends of their hearing challenges are more likely to enjoy their social interactions. Keeping socially active, especially for the over-65 population, helps combat serious co-morbidities with hearing loss, such as loneliness, depression, and cognitive decline. Behavioral health apps or a hearing coach can assist the patient with tips and techniques for maximizing social enjoyment, such as requesting others to remove their hands from their mouths when speaking to help with speech reading.
By providing coaching to patients in these six areas, hearing device companies will support patients who are living with hearing loss, fostering desired increases in device adoption rates.
Photo: Humonia, Getty Images
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Nancy M. Williams
Nancy M. Williams is President and Founder of Auditory Insight, a strategy and marketing consultancy for hearing healthcare. She leverages her expertise in new market development, patient engagement, and consumer insight, as well as her experiences as a hearing health advocate and person with hearing loss, to create a 360-degree perspective for companies solving hearing loss, including device manufacturers. payers, and private equity investors. Prior to founding Auditory Insight, she created and ran the patient engagement business for HPOne, working with Medicare Advantage payers to close care gaps and improve Star Ratings through patient outreach. A widely published writer and national speaker who has addressed thousands, she served on the Board of the Hearing Health Foundation for four years. She holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BA from Stanford University in Quantitative Economics, both with distinction.
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