Dirty Tricks Used To Sell Hearing Aids: “White Coat Marketing” and The Phony “Research Study” Discount

You’re experiencing trouble hearing: On average it’s taken you seven years to act on it, sometimes asking your family doctor (who is often clueless), sometimes going to an ENT, and sometimes responding to a TV ad or direct mail piece to see a hearing aid dealer or audiologist. Here are two barely-ethical Dirty Tricks they use to get you to buy their often-overpriced wares — And how you can combat them.

 

Dirty Trick #1: White Coat Marketing by the ENT:

You finally act, get your hearing tested, either at a standalone audiologist or hearing aid dispenser, or at an ENT’s office. You’re escorted either into the Dr’s office or treatment room for the “examination,” where he comes in with his white coat. He first looks at the audiogram, then he looks in your ears (and occasionally your nose & mouth), then he looks at the audiogram again, and then he delivers the sales pitch: “see my audiologist down the hall for your hearing aids,” sometimes even walking you down the hallway where you’ll part with thousands of dollars more than you would spend elsewhere.

Dirty Trick #1A: White Coat Marketing to the Scared Mother by the pediatric ENT:

You’re a scared parent of an infant or child newly diagnosed with hearing loss, and the pediatric ENT is telling you Junior needs hearing aids as soon as possible, and to see his audiologist at once, where you’ll quickly “find a way” to part with four, five, even six thousand dollars for low-to-middle grade (usually Phonak, sometimes Oticon) hearing aids, often signing usurious Care Charge or other patient financing agreements or asking Grandma for money. For the smiling Evil Audiologist — especially ones at  “Children’s Hospital of [insert ‘City Name’ here]” or “[insert ‘Big Donor Name’ here] Children’s Hospital” — it’s like taking candy from a baby.

The way to combat this Evil AuD Dirty Trick is to ask the ENT for a prescription for the hearing aids — which ethically he must write — and once you have that, shop around. One thing Evil Audiologists are being forced to do is unbundle their services, and you can leverage this, buying the hearing aids elsewhere and have them programmed for about $200 by any audiologist — Just make sure she uses real ear measurement to get an accurate fit.

[This brings us to Costco: They sell  “locked down” Bernafon, Rexton (Siemens) and ReSound hearing aids one generation behind, and you are forced to return to a Costco that sells hearing aids for any reprogramming. However, the $1299 Phonak Brio hearing aids are the same aids as the current expensive Audeo & Bolero aids; and once purchased can be programmed by any pediatric audiologist with Target 3.3, which every hearing aid professional has loaded (or if they have an earlier Target version tell them to run the updater from the Tools menu). The problem is that Costco will not fit hearing aids to people under 18 (even though they do a good job by using real ear measurement on every fitting), so you may need to ask the store manager if you can buy the aids in the package without being fit so you can take them to your audiologist for the earmolds & fitting.]

 

Dirty Trick #2: The Phony “Research Study” Discount:

This trick is used by ethically-challenged “professionals” to close a sale when the consumer is negotiating for a better price: Typically after some back-and-forth the  Evil Audiologist will say “let me check if there’s a research study you can participate in;” and then he goes into the other room for a few minutes and prints out a phony “research study contract” with your name filled in. He then comes back in and says “Good news! There’s a research study you can participate in that will give you a $1000 discount” as he puts the contract in front of you to sign. But when you look closely at the contract, you’ll see no research institution or other entity named, and you’ll also see words to the effect of  “in return for this valuable renumeration we are asking you to complete the study, and if you do not, you will pay $400 in fees if you return the hearing aids” — Meaning you’re now on the hook for $400 in fees if the Evil AuD fucks up your fitting. First off, all hearing aid manufacturers give generous 60 to 90 day free return privileges to their dealers, so you should never have to pay any more than the nominal cost of the earmolds if you return the aids. If you’re offered one of these phony “research study” contracts, simply cross off the exorbitant dispensing fee; and if they don’t agree, get up & walk out — You don’t want to deal with them.

Southpark Ginger Kids episode on Hulu
Southpark Ginger Kids episode on Hulu

[This is not to condemn all research studies: One small audiology chain in Salem, Oregon that has a boutique practice of specializing in single-sided deafness uses internal studies every couple of years to determine the best CROS hearing aid for first-time and long-time users. He can be an asshole ginger to his colleagues, but he’s NOT an Evil AuD.]


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10 thoughts on “Dirty Tricks Used To Sell Hearing Aids: “White Coat Marketing” and The Phony “Research Study” Discount

  1. Small correction: Costco’s hearing aid technology is no longer one generation behind. However, a few models may have (largely inconsequential) features disabled. Costco hearing aids remain locked, as are Beltone, Audigy’s AGX brand, and a few others. A “feature” worthy of a separate post.

    In case you’re wondering if I’m a Costco shill: My audiologist wife and I own a private practice which is near one of Costco’s top-producing stores (in the same state as asshole ginger lives, though we know his audiologist dad better… yeah, I’m an old fart). To compete, we’ve had to learn about their operation instead of relying on rumors.

    You’re off to a good start with your blog. Keep up the good work. The hearing industry as it currently operates will give you plenty to write about.

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    • Yeah, I should have made clear that Phonak aids sold at Costco have the latest Quest chip, while the others are one generation behind. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Costco Brio aids can be programmed by anyone who has Target 3.3; but the Costco copies of Target can only program the Brio.

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      • You’re correct; Target 3.3 for private offices gives access to the Brio products, but only by a “read” of the product; they don’t show up in the software otherwise. If you hook them up and read–poof–there they are.

        The de-featured aspects of the Brio vs. the Bolero are (1) they do not have the tinnitus noise generators (a request by Costco, since they don’t want to deal with tinnitus patients; they take a lot of time and Costco is focused on selling the product, not a lot of follow-up); and (2) they do not have the “EchoBlock” feature, which helps in reverberant environments. Kind of ironic since the high ceilings of the big box are incredibly reverberant; would be great for demo’ing the product in a Costco.

        –From the “Asshole Ginger” [why, exactly, profanity needs to be used, I don’t know, but hey–it’s your BLOG]

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    • From the “Asshole Ginger”: First, why the moniker for me? “Ginger” is kind of obvious, but not sure why I deserve the first part since, so far as I know, I have never met you. BUT, it’s your BLOG, so I’ll live with it, tongue-in-cheek, until you’ve determined I’ve evolved to a higher level. Just clad you don’t consider me to be an “Evil Aud.”

      So, past that, I agree with you not only on the “Phony Research Study Discount”, not only in the sales strategy in the office, but particularly in some of the advertising used to promote it: “Wanted! 30 people to try out an amazing new technology!” More often than not, this technology is neither new nor particularly amazing. Hearing aids work well, but the research on the functionality of the hearing aids was conducted directly by the manufacturer months before the product was released, in labs with anechoic chambers and other sterile environments to prove the features works (although still not in the real world).

      Some manufacturers do conduct beta tests in commercial offices to verify that the product software is idiot proof and that it’s ready for audiologists and dispensers to use. This is as close to a “practice study” as you get. But when I see the “Wanted! 30 People” ads, I get seriously disgusted at my colleagues. Yeah, they want 30 people, but it’s really not a study, nothing’s going to be published. It’s a sales ploy to get people in the door. My own studies (which you mentioned) are for my own purposes, to evaluate manufacturer claims so that I know what products work best for the people I see. We get all kinds of promises and “white papers”, but they aren’t real world and are often biased in favor of the manufacturer’s new wonder product.

      So, I put them to the test. Our method is to have them compare one manufacturer over a few weeks to another’s. We conduct sound field testing in a booth (both for quiet and noise), Real Ear testing, and have the patients fill out subjective surveys as to their impression of the product’s performance. From all of this we learn when one product is better than another, and it’s rarely that one was completely better than another. What we do learn is in what situation and for what patients each product is better, as every patient is different.

      The only form the patient signs is a “Loaner Agreement”, which is their promise to return the product in good condition at the end of each trial. There is NO obligation to purchase, although they have the opportunity to do so at their own discretion. Regardless of purchase, each participant receives a $50 gift card for a local restaurant of their choice as a “thank you” since they have helped us gather information and given us their time to do so. And I never have a problem if a patient doesn’t purchase because–guess what?–I really am performing a study to collect information, and willing to do so at my own expense because the knowledge is important to me.

      Likewise, we do not solicit study participants from the general public as we are looking for specific hearing loss configurations or particular needs when a new product becomes available. You mentioned my specialty in CROS technology, and while three of the studies we’ve performed in the last decade were related to it, we have done studies in other areas relating to frequency-shifting technology, tinnitus management solutions, and various types of noise reduction methodologies. Since these are very specific features, we utilize our database of over 30 years of clients to find the right people (i.e. we have over 20,000 patients in out computer, but maybe only 400 have single-sided deafness). We don’t promote these studies to the general public since it might inadvertently bring someone in with a hearing loss configuration that doesn’t match the purpose of the study, and we don’t want to be perceived as a bait-and-switch company.

      In summary, people should read between the lines in advertising before responding to it. Don’t sign any forms requiring payment for participating in the study. You’re helping the practitioner to gather information–they owe you, not the other way around.

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      • Scot, I know you and your family in person; and although unlike your father you ARE TRULY A REAL ASSHOLE, I also know that you run an honest business, which is why you or your chain was not named.

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      • Since you indicate you know me, it’s only fair that you let me know who you are. If you don’t want it publicized, please reply directly to my email. I’ll keep it tight. Not sure why you consider me an asshole. Don’t know what I ever did to you.

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      • Hah hah Hah hah Hah hah Hah hah Hah hah Hah hah Hah hah Hah hah Hah hah Hah hah Hah hah Hah hah Hah hah Hah hah Hah hah Hah hah Hah hah Hah hah Hah hah Hah hah Hah hah Hah hah Hah hah Hah hah Hah hah Hah hah Hah hah Hah hah Hah hah Hah hah Hah hah Hah hah Hah hah

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  2. Quick question. If the Evil AuD as you state, “Fucks up your fitting” how do you “fuck” them back? What if your audiologist is not just a Ginger but as you state an “Asshole Ginger”? Do you have any remediation?

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    • If your Evil AuD fucks up your fitting and you’re still on the hook for hundreds of $$$ in dubious “fees” you can post it in Yelp, Facebook, Twitter, and on AllDeaf.com. The prospective nursing home customers may not see it, but the boomers who pay big $$$ for premium wireless hearing aids sure will. And, it’s the dog that didn’t bark: Yes, the Evil AuD may have collected $400, but it cost him many thousands in business that will silently pass by.

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      • From the “Asshole Ginger”: I agree with EvilAud (funny that that’s his/her moniker since these are the people he’s trying to disparage) regarding reputation–it’s everything. This is why it’s imperative for every hearing professional to provide the highest level service possible. And if we don’t, we get the reviews online and elsewhere that we deserve.

        BUT, this argument is only true if the opposite is also true: If your audiologist or dispenser provides GREAT service and follows through on service, then you should also give him or her a good review online. Not all of us are crooks; the majority realize that our patients are our income, so it behooves us to do the best job possible. Every business should provide it’s customers with top-level service such that it’s patients end up becoming part of their sales force, returning for new hearing aids when it is appropriate and referring other patients because they are happy with the service the received.

        If anyone doesn’t like the service they receive, they should first return to the practitioner and give them a list of the problems, and give the practitioner the opportunity to solve the problem. We can’t fix problems we don’t know about, so I tell patients at every visit to please let us know if something comes up so that we get a chance to follow through on providing them the service we promised to give them.

        Everyone deserves the reviews they receive, as long as the reviewer is honest.

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