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How to Shop For Hearing Aids

By Nichole Suss, Au.D., CCC-A

By Nichole Suss, Au.D., CCC-A

By Nichole Suss, Au.D., CCC-A

According to the Center for Hearing Communication, more than 38 million people have significant hearing loss.  At least 15 million let this condition go undiagnosed and untreated. And while one-third of those 65-plus experience hearing problems, they’re not alone. Significant proportions of people aged 45–64 — not to mention children who listen to loud music — have hearing problems.

Getting proper and timely treatment of hearing problems is critical to quality of life. But how does a consumer know where to get the best treatment?

Some people go to hearing-aid stores. These visits are often self-referred, without a physician’s consultation; some consumers may experience a significant difference in hearing care as a result.

“Ideally, you should see an audiologist, someone trained and certified in hearing healthcare,” says Nichole Suss, Au.D., an audiologist at UI Health. While some retailers may employ audiologists, they are not required by law to do so.  As a result, the person treating a hearing problem could be more concerned with selling hearing aids than diagnosing the roots and causes of hearing disorders and recommending appropriate treatments.

Many cases of hearing loss do require hearing aids, which can have tremendous benefits. But before purchasing a device that could cost a few thousand dollars, it’s best to get a comprehensive medical and/or hearing examination. Many hearing problems are tied to medical causes: inner-ear problems, nerve disorders, even more serious may be growths or tumors. A primary-care physician or otolaryngologist can diagnose medical and other conditions that either manifest as hearing problems or need to be treated along with hearing.

“You may encounter very good people in those stores,” Dr. Suss says. “But in many cases, you could also be serviced by people who’ve taken only a short training program and are incentivized to sell hearing aids based on commission. To the patient, that may be a lot different than treating a hearing condition.”

The diagnostics used in the UI Health Audiology Department or sophisticated audiology practice also are quite different from what a patient will encounter at a retail store. Because many staff at retail operations are not audiologists, their diagnostic tools are typically limited to a basic audiogram. That could fail to diagnose more significant medically based problems, especially any number of conditions of the head and neck.

At UI Health, the connection between Audiology and doctors who specialize in conditions of the ear, nose, and throat (ENT) is quite close. Appointments can be coordinated, often on the same day, to get a patient a hearing work-up if the ENT doctor indicates the need. The result, Dr. Suss says, is to “create a roadmap” that links patients with needed medical services at the same time they are receiving treatment for hearing.

And often at retail stores, patients are “up-sold” a top-tier hearing aid. If good diagnostics are used, depending on the severity and cause of the hearing problem, a high-end device may not be necessary. For the patient, Dr. Suss says, it’s important to ask if your provider is taking a "needs assessment" and then customizing the selection — and fitting of the device to your needs. If not, the patient should insist on proper diagnostics and getting a device that meets the needs of their case.

Finally, hearing aids appear expensive. And, contrary to the misconception that Medicare pays for them (it doesn’t), what you pay could come out of your own pocket. Depending on where you go for treatment and your insurance, some or all of your costs may be covered. Dr. Suss notes that if your insurer picks up only partial coverage, you’ll most often pay the bulk of the cost.  (UI Health Audiology works with patients and their insurance companies for billing and reimbursement.)

While costs vary depending on the device, a proper hearing aid, even with basic technology, can cost more than $1,000. But over several years of daily use, that’s not a bad investment, especially considering the quality of life that can come from wearing properly fit hearing aids, Dr. Suss adds.

Sometimes the price may seem a bit cheaper at a retailer. It is important to look closely at what you’re actually paying for. Some stores have a la carte costs for every visit, for example: Do they provide regular checkups/tune-ups on the hearing aids, and what does that cost? What are the return policies and restocking fees? Some retailers don’t provide free adjustments. At UI Health, for example, many services — including periodic cleaning/maintenance and adjustments to digital hearing aids (about 95 percent of all devices today) — are provided in the purchase price; there are no additional costs for an adjustment or software update. UI Health Audiology also provides a three-year warranty and supply of batteries for most hearing aids.

In the end, hearing problems affect quality of life. Many people withdraw from participating in activities they’ve enjoyed their entire lives, even accepting hearing loss as something that they just have to “live with.” Getting proper treatment and care is critical, and when a patient does seek that out, it’s important to ask the right questions to make an educated decision that will provide the desired outcome.