Hearing care professionals: who is going to eat your lunch?

Business tips

geoffrey cooling
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Geoff Cooling was in combative mood when he wrote this business tips article. He considers the latest disruptive technologies and the effect they could have on the industry. Apparently many people are wondering about who is going to eat their lunch?!

This is a funny expression and I often wonder what the foundation of it is. It is a question that many within our profession are asking themselves though. The online forums are full of professionals worrying about this topic. The conferences are the same. The question at the moment is what effect hearables will have and will we have a lunch left? I have spoken at several conferences about hearables and the adoption of other technologies for the benefit of our profession.

Many of you don’t actually get it, you will complain about this or that, bemoan the march of technology, but you won’t actually get of your backside and do something (Geoff making friends again). A harsh truth, but a truth nonetheless and one you need to face.

Our world is rapidly changing

It seems that no matter what we as a profession (front line) and an industry (manufacturers) have done, penetration into the possible market has never increased above a third at best. That isn’t something that we should be very proud of. Extreme cost is recorded as the number one barrier of entry for the hearing impaired. However I think that cannot be taken at face value. I believe that there is an issue with perception of value, and there are still some vestiges of stigma as an element.

Prime for disruption

No matter, the core fact here is that there is a huge possible untapped market and the hearing aid world both wholesale and retail is ripe for disruption. I have said it before and I have no doubt that I will say it again; shouldn’t it be us, within that world that drives that disruption? It is very simple, if we do not act, someone else will. My feeling is that many would regret that happening.

Changing attitudes with new technology

The introduction of hearable devices has already changed the cultural acceptability of ear worn or ear level devices. Ear worn devices outside hearing aids as a concept for the mass market are relatively new; however, they have quickly become both acceptable and sought after. This isn’t an early adopter’s thing; we are beyond that, this is quickly becoming a mass market thing.

I believe that hearables could open up endless possibilities for the future of our profession and industry. Hearables offer new opportunities for diversification in product and possible service offering. They open up hearing healthcare outlets to completely new prospects and target demographics. The devices could be a strong possible new source of revenue flow for hearing healthcare.

A new product opportunity for retail

These devices are firmly consumer electronics and they already have an avid market. I have said before that hearables are more than just an off the shelf consumer electronic. They are more akin to mobile phones, computers, or hearing aids. Choice and technical explanation is important in the distribution model. There are also opportunities for physical customisation.

Changing the perception of value

Taking technology cues from hearable manufacturers can actually allow us to change the perception of value of hearing devices. I wrote an article online in 2015 that discussed the health tracking possibilities that are innate in modern wireless hearing aids just by adding a simple sensor set.

Through the ear we can monitor steps taken, estimate calories burned, take body temperature, heart rate, oximetry, we can even take an ECG. I said then that this information could not just be used for real time fitness tracking but also for real time healthcare monitoring.

Jabra liked that idea

Jabra, part of GN’s portfolio of companies obviously agreed with that concept. In fact, the next time you walk into a doctor’s office, you might leave with a prescription for a pair of Jabra fitness-tracking headphones. Jabra have entered into a global partnership with TrainerMD, who are the first HIPAA compliant software platform to allow doctors to monitor patients’ fitness and nutrition in real time. It is envisaged that this programme will allow the collaboration of doctors, trainers and nurses on the needs of patients suffering from obesity, cancer, and diabetes.

The medical advantages

We are all aware of the pressure that healthcare is under with the continuing demands on services made by an aging population. In-home elderly care can be made ever more practical as remote doctors and family members are able to monitor the vitals of their patients and loved ones in real time.

Real time monitoring could have dramatic effects on the medical response time for strokes, seizures and heart attacks in the elderly. I have said it before and I will say it again, imagine if an elderly patient has a heart attack at home while alone. How comforting for them would it for their hearing aid to tell them the event has been logged and the emergency responder called or notified.

Science fiction stuff? No not really, in fact one hearing aid manufacturer has just introduced one part of the system needed to undertake the job, why they stopped at that I don’t know.

Oticon and IFTTT

Oticon has just introduced their new device; the Opn. In a rather far sighted way they have designed it to have access to the IFTTT (If This, Then That) network. It does so by connecting to the internet via the Oticon ON app on a smartphone. The IFTTT network is a network that we will hear more and more of over the next couple of years. It is designed to allow you to set triggers, whereby one action, automatically triggers another. For instance, you can set up an IFTTT recipe that ensures everything you post to Twitter is automatically posted on Facebook. It also has applications in the real world; applications that will just grow as the internet of things grow.

One such real world action for instance is setting your heating to come on automatically once a certain outside temperature has been reached. The recipes are endless and only curbed by the amount of devices that are connected to the IOT.

So, if Oticon had ear level sensors that monitored vitals, coupled with an accelerometer that could tell when someone has fallen, they could set the hearing aids to trigger a real time call for help. More than that, they could continuously monitor vital signs for health or fitness tracking triggering weekly reports to be sent to anyone who should have access. This technology could put us in the centre of primary care.

Recreational factors

Aside from the medical uses of such technology, I believe there is a strong argument for recreational use. The people we are seeing are quite different from the people we used to see. They tend to be far more active, healthy and determined to enjoy life. They are more likely to exercise be that cycling or running for enjoyment. So activity tracking is also of interest and of value to them. I think that the evolution of what we call hearing aids to the concept of wearables can make our products more attractive. The diversity of the function of these types of devices would radically change the perception of value.

You probably thought it was bunkum

How many of you reading this went to an Oticon launch over the summer and thought that it had no bearing on your patients? How many of you thought “sure my customers won’t be interested in this”? That, ladies and gentlemen, is called cognitive bias, just because you are a Luddite who is afraid of technology doesn’t mean that there are not opportunities for this technology within our market.

Just like smartphones, Skype, Facebook and Facetime, this technology will become accepted and expected within our target demographic. The key is that we should be adopting it and driving it. Otherwise someone else will and there won’t be any lunch left.

Geoffrey Cooling, author of justaudiologystuff.com and audiologyengine.com