As a society, we have become conditioned to researching and buying products online. With the introduction of over-the-counter hearing aids, many companies are feeling threatened as the number of online or mail order hearing aid options is increasing rapidly. Even health insurance companies are dipping their proverbial toes into the online and mail order hearing aid industry. The question is this – who does this business model really help and what should a prospective consumer do?
Benefits of buying hearing aids online or via mail order
In order to accurately evaluate whether you should be purchasing hearing aids online, or doing it in a brick and mortar facility, we need to talk about the perceived benefits to purchasing hearing aids online. (Note the use of the word “perceived”, as not all of these reasons are actually true).
- Money savings – The first and most common perceived benefit is that purchasing hearing aids online or via mail order will save money. This would be a great reason if it were true. When you purchase a hearing aid online, the initial cost is likely lower than in a brick and mortar facility. When you need service, however (and you WILL need service), the cost for an initial visit to have hearing aids programmed can range from $750 to $1,500 per ear. This is especially true if they were purchased online as there may be a greater amount of adjustment required. This cost is just for the initial set-up. On top of that, you will pay a smaller service fee EVERY time you visit that office. Your initial savings is now gone, and in fact, you have likely paid more than you needed to in the first place.
- Convenience – This benefit is real and is tough to argue against. Assuming you have had a valid hearing test and select a product appropriate for your hearing loss, the desire to have the convenience and anonymity of being able to shop from the comfort of your home is very understandable. The concern, however, is the tradeoff between initial convenience and anonymity, compared to the search for a local provider for future hearing aid maintenance and care.
- Online research – The most valid reason to utilize online resources is research. Many hearing healthcare providers are biased towards one hearing aid manufacturer or another. The bias is usually based on how well a product works for a provider, as many providers seem to have a bias towards the products that work best for their patients. There are also occasions when a bias is forced upon a provider because the business is owned by or financially backed by a particular hearing aid manufacturer. Nearly every hearing healthcare provider has a bias. As long as that bias provides the best product for and service to the customer, it is not a bad thing.
Online research can allow you, as the consumer, to compare hearing aid features and styles. It also gives you good questions to ask your hearing healthcare professional, allowing you to be a more informed and knowledgeable consumer. It should be noted, however, that online information can be posted and published by almost anyone, and can certainly be colored to influence your decision. When doing online research, remember to consider the source and don’t believe everything you read. Information gathering is a great way to utilize online resources. Being an informed and inquisitive consumer will help you and your hearing healthcare provider get and stay on the same page, making the treatment of hearing loss as smooth as possible.
Disadvantages of buying hearing aids online
When you purchase hearing aids online or via mail order, you are not being fitted in person by a licensed professional. You also have limited recourse since they are likely not coming from your state. Furthermore, unless a hearing test was performed just prior to purchasing the hearing aids, the ones selected may not be the most appropriate option for you. I have been asked several times why the initial set-up fee for hearing aids is so high. The reason is that the hearing healthcare provider has to assume much of the responsibility and liability for the hearing aids once they are fitted. So, through the life of the hearing aid, the savings provided by purchasing hearing aids online is minimal and likely non-existent.
Buying hearing aids in person has its advantages
Here is an actual example of a patient I recently saw in one of my offices. The patient decided to purchase a set of name brand hearing aids online and have them shipped to her door. She paid $2,500 for the set. These same hearing aids would have cost her $4,200 in my office. In her mind, the savings was a huge $1,700. This seemed like a great deal.
She had problems with the hearing aids, however, and needed them to be serviced, so she came to our office since we had seen her for a hearing test several years earlier. Given that she was fitted via online delivery, she did not have a recent hearing test, and no on-ear measures (which are required by law in many states) were performed. So, we had to essentially start over and the cost was $1,000 per ear. Now, her total cost for the hearing aids is up to $4,500, and that does not include what she will pay for each adjustment going forward. In addition to the fact that she has now overpaid for the hearing aids, and will be paying for service going forward, she purchased a set of hearing aids that were not best suited for her hearing loss. Had she come to the office in the first place, she would have been fitted with a set of hearing aids more appropriate for her hearing loss, and actually saved money over the lifespan of her hearing aids.
The bottom line on purchasing hearing aids
The main take away is that the limitations of purchasing hearing aids online or via mail order do not overcome the benefits of working with a local hearing healthcare professional. Use online resources to do your own research and make sure you are an informed and engaged consumer.