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HLAA Workshop: Consumer Reports on Hearing Loss

July 1, 2011 in Education & Outreach

By Bonnie O’Leary  6/29/11

This was a very interesting forum on the research that went into the magazine’s 2009 feature on hearing loss as well as why Consumer Reports considers hearing aids a priority area for health consumers.  The discussion was led by Elissa Schuler Adair, Manager, Health Care Research, and Senior Editor, Tobie Stanger. 

As an introduction, Ms. Adair gave a quick overview of the Consumer Reports profile.  Their publications have  8+ million subscribers, and their popularity is due to a number of factors.  Their product comparisons and ratings are comprehensive, unbiased, independent, consumer-driven, and they accept no donations from manufacturers.  The company came to the HLAA convention as a way to reach out to people with hearing loss who use hearing aids because gathering hearing aid information is difficult and expensive, and Consumer Reports wants to hear from wearers about their experiences.

“How to Hear Well in a Noisy World”

Many of you may have read the Consumer Reports article “How to Hear Well in a Noisy World”, published in their June 23, 2009 issue.  Tobie Sanger wrote the article.  She has a personal interest in hearing loss because her daughter is deaf and has a cochlear implant.  And Consumer Reports receives a lot of mail about hearing aids, asking how to find the right brand, and where to go to get it.  

To gather the data featured in the article, 12 secret shoppers purchased 48 hearing aids over several months.  The Consumer Reports lab tested features on 44 hearing aids, and a survey was conducted among 1,100 hearing aid purchasers.  All the shoppers had a hearing loss and they were paired with Consumer Reports staffers.  The script was that the shopper was accompanied by a relative or friend who would be paying for the device.  Shoppers were assigned to specific vendors and retailers, and they returned for at least one follow-up visit.

Shopper feedback

Shopper-staff pairs provided feedback on their experiences, many sounding like what we hear all the time in our NVRC outreach:  the dispenser made the hearing aid decision without taking any personal history; the vendor sold a certain style of hearing aid without asking if the buyer wanted it; the vendor was hurried and brisk, covering the basics too quickly.  Shoppers also experienced “the sell.”  Discounts were offered if the purchase was made by a certain date, offers were made for free batteries and 100% refunds if the trial period was reduced from 45 to 30 days, and the top-of-the-line aids were pushed before trying mid-level aids.

But there were some good experiences.  These included having the dispenser take as long as was needed and explain everything clearly, recommending the lowest-level hearing aid, and exchanging a hearing aid when the shopper complained about the quality.

Lab-testing after shopping

Audiologists used real-ear measurement and other tests to check the hearing aids’ fit.  Two-thirds of the 48 aids purchased by the secret shoppers were improperly fit.  The audiologists also tested the various features like directional microphones, feedback suppression, and telecoils.

Survey of hearing aid users
Of the 1,100 consumers who had purchased hearing aids in the past three years, 73% were highly satisfied with their aids.  However these users were not acquainted with the features included in their hearing aids.  Consumer Reports found that 1/4 didn’t know whether they had feedback suppression, and 1/3 didn’t know whether they had directional microphones.  Of all the areas they reported on, consumers gave the lowest marks to the choice and selection offered, which was limited.

Hearing aid buying/trying advice
– The consumer should expect a provider with an audiology degree or hearing-aid specialist certification.  There should be a broad choice of brands, styles and features.  Clinic hours should be convenient, and repairs available on a walk-in basis.  Real-ear test should be performed. (Bonnie’s note: my audiologist explained to me that the real-ear measurement equipment is extremely expensive which is why it isn’t always available.  She does not have it but refers her patients to another audiologist who does.)   Rehab classes or therapy should be offered after fitting.

– As a consumer, you should focus on the features of the hearing aid, not the brands.  Ask about the telecoil, directional microphone, feedback suppression, and residual amplification.  Practice using the aids in different environments and activities, and make sure you have follow-up fittings as often as needed.

– Haggle!  Of those surveyed who did bargain shop, 40% got a price cut.  Shopping for hearing aids in December produces better bargains because dispensers aren’t as busy.  Go to more than one dispenser and make it known that you are shopping around.  Decline promotional extras if you don’t need them and ask for a price cut instead.

Audiologist response

Audiologists showed concern that the Consumer Reports research found they weren’t much better at fitting hearing aids than less-educated hearing instrument specialists.  They were also concerned that consumers were confused about who had fitted their hearing aids.  The good news is they’re more aware that they need to improve education of, and communication with, consumers.

Consumer challenges

– It’s not enjoyable to shop for hearing aids, and providers pressure you to buy more hearing aid than you need. 
– Many people can’t afford hearing aids, and those who can might end up spending too much. 
– It can take so much time to adjust to wearing a hearing aid that many consumers just give up.
– The fitting is as important as the hearing aid, but it’s not easy to judge the skill of the professional who does the fitting.
– It’s hard to price shop because the price often includes service, and service is often different among providers.

Why Consumer Reports doesn’t test hearing aids more often

It’s very expensive to do this kind of testing, and interest is limited.  Only 8% of Consumer Reports subscribers buy a new hearing aid each year, so regular testing of the market wouldn’t pay for itself.

So what’s next?

At the moment, Consumer Reports is actively considering retailer ratings, rating budget models of hearing aids, offering a features database with no testing of these features, and offering an on-line hearing test.  Consumer Reports would like to hear from us!  We can provide information about our own product experiences, share our main concerns, and offer suggestions on how to get this information to people who need it.

If you have comments you would like to share about your hearing aid experience, send them to ratingscenter@consumerreportshealth.org.