D_Strom.jpg (8295 bytes)This month’s edition of The Hearing Review features an analysis of the 2001-02 hearing health care market, as well as articles on digital instruments, fitting systems and large-group aural rehabilitation seminars. Additionally, a preview of new products and services being offered at the American Academy of Audiology’s annual convention in Philadelphia is featured on pages 26-33.

One of the many changes cited in this year’s market analysis is the larger percentage of hearing instruments being dispensed outside traditional independent offices. All together, the major conglomerate retailers now account for somewhere around one-quarter of all hearing instrument sales. Additionally, the Department of Veterans Affairs accounts for about 12%, and mail order companies account for approximately 4% of all hearing instruments dispensed, according to MarkeTrak VI (see Dec. 2001 HR).

While that means that approximately three-in-five of all hearing instruments are still dispensed by independent offices, it’s difficult to ignore the gains made by these dispensing segments. Forward integration—manufacturers purchasing or affiliating themselves financially with chain retailers—was a buzzword in 2001 and it was a worldwide phenomenon (see p. 19). Why? The hearing instrument market isn’t growing rapidly in terms of unit volume, and there may be substantial future rewards for those manufacturers who secure their distribution channels. In response to the financial demands of the new, digital era that requires greater economies of scale by the manufacturers—and the financial short-term pressure of shareholders in the case of the public companies—growth by “sewing up” distribution has become a very attractive option for many manufacturers. How these dispensing chains perform financially, and how they will affect the industry in the future are intriguing questions posed by the changing industry structure.

Practically everyone agrees that the independent dispenser who does a good job of fitting hearing instruments and who provides quality individual care for his/her clients will continue to experience success and have a thriving business. Many point out that it is the personalized care and hand-holding that ensures the success of the independent offices.

Additionally, more consideration has recently been given by hearing care professionals relative to joining buying groups, co-ops and similar organizations. In fact, the Academy of Dispensing Audiologists (ADA) has reported that it is weighing the merits of establishing a buying group for interested members. (The organization emphasizes that they are in the “talking stages” only and would need to know how its members feel about such a plan before moving forward.)

Whatever the changes in the hearing care market, there is one thing that would radically improve everyone’s future success: getting a larger percentage of the 28 million people who have a hearing loss to admit that it’s time to do something about their communication problem. Expanding the market and “making the pie bigger” will make everyone’s lives easier—and better. It starts with hearing education initiatives to consumers, to physicians (see last month’s editorial by HR Publisher Pauline Davies) and to legislators. Additionally, the hearing health care professions need to look past their differences and concentrate on helping more people understand that better hearing means better living.

Karl Strom