Millions of people live every day with some sort of hearing impairment. In fact, over 35 million Americans are affected by hearing loss, due to older age, disease, noise and heredity according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

Loss of hearing can occur gradually over time, causing shame, embarrassment, insecurity and anxiety. “Our sense of hearing is often taken for granted,” explains Carla E. Fortune, Au.D., certified audiologist at The Ear Nose and Throat Plastic Surgery Associates in Orlando, Florida. “It contributes greatly to our emotional well-being, our personal sense of safety, and our independence.”

But hearing aids don’t come cheap; in fact the average price for a mid-level pair of hearing aids in the United States costs around $4,400. And the cost of hearing aid devices isn’t covered by Medicare and more often than not, is out of the realm of most insurance policies, thus placing the brunt of the financial burden on the individual.

In a quest to save money, many patients turn to big box retailers or wholesale clubs, to purchase hearing aids and personal sound amplification products (PSAPs), usually at greatly discounted prices. In fact, Costco’s prices could be less than half that of the average price of hearing aids in the U.S.; despite sourcing their devices from the same manufacturers as other independent audiologists. With such a large price difference at the “big box stores”, what are you giving up versus shopping at a specialized hearing center like the one found at The Ear, Nose, Throat and Plastic Surgery Associates?

Is it ultimately in your best interest to purchase your hearing aids from the same place you buy your underwear, your dishwashing liquid and your tires? Below we’ll discuss the four most important things you should know before purchasing your hearing aid device at a big box outlet.

Education, Experience and Know-How

In large chain stores, you won’t find a doctor of audiology at your service; most retailers hire ‘Hearing Instrument Specialists’ who can be rapidly trained to carry out hearing tests and then become salespeople. In many states, only a high school diploma is needed to get a license to sell hearing devices.

Hearing Instrument Specialists are not doctors. Unlike certified doctors of audiology (Au.D. degrees), they don’t possess four years of undergraduate and four years of graduate education specializing in the anatomy and acoustics of the ear, hearing loss, and the programming and maintenance of complex hearing aid devices. Most big box retailers promote from within, so there is a strong chance that the person dispensing your hearing aid may have been working as a stock person or at the cosmetics counter just a short time ago.

One-on-One Time With Experts

Many consumers fail to recognize that hearing loss is a complex issue, and may be caused by a myriad of factors. An extensive examination is usually required, which sales representatives at big box stores are unable to provide.

Only a licensed hearing professional has the ability to provide an extensive examination of the patient’s auditory well-being, to determine if there are bacterial infections, tumors, ear wax, or other problems that can’t be cleared up simply by wearing a hearing aid. In addition, certified audiologists are the only specialists uniquely trained to fit and dispense hearing aid devices; they work together with physicians to provide the most complete care and reliable results for all of one’s hearing and balance related issues.

“When you schedule a hearing evaluation appointment, the audiologist will conduct the test in a sound booth,” says Carla. “They’ll measure your hearing sensitivity at various pitches, and frequencies, and following the exam, you’ll meet with your audiologist as well as an ear, nose and throat physician, to review your results and give you an explanation of the type and degree of hearing loss that you may have.”

The hearing device consultation is a critical component of the hearing aid process. During this one-on-one time with the audiologist, the patient can discuss different styles and levels of technology; and, together they can decide which hearing device is the best fit, at the best price. The patient will also be able to try out different devices that are tailored to their particular type of hearing loss, and experience what those sound like and how they work.

In some retail outlets, the “hearing center” is a booth set up in a corner, placed more to maximize visibility and the bottom line, than to provide privacy and confidentiality. The booth may even be close to where the store offers tire changes and a wheel alignment for your car.

When consulting a licensed professional, after the initial evaluation, the audiologist will usually schedule a follow up hearing device consultation to review all the hearing aid options, based on the patient’s particular lifestyle, their expectations of the hearing device, the degree of hearing loss, and their budget.

“Price alone shouldn’t determine which device you pursue,” says Carla. “It’s important to choose a device that will fit your lifestyle and be able to do what you need it to do.”

Significant differences exist between hearing aid devices, based on levels of technology, benefit and price. At big box stores, certified experts aren’t available to guide you through this intricate process, and answer important questions such as which device is the best fit for your particular type of hearing loss, your expectations, your lifestyle, and your budget.

Follow Up and Level of Service

Getting a new hearing device is usually accompanied with an immediate improvement in hearing sounds in one’s environment, and in conversation in general. Patients generally have more energy at the end of the day, because they’re able to hear much better.

However, learning to use a new hearing device properly takes time and patience; there are many sounds that the patient will need to get used to hearing. That’s why it’s crucial for patients to work with a certified audiologist, to guide and help them through this transition process.

The truth is, hearing devices contain complex tiny computers that require a skilled programmer, to synchronize the device with the patient’s unique hearing loss. It takes years of training and experience in order to learn how to properly program a hearing aid, and how to adapt the same hearing device to two different individuals, with different types of hearing loss.

In the vast majority of cases, regular maintenance and follow up appointments are needed to make sure that the devices are working at their optimal level, and to ensure that the patient is getting the most out of them. Hearing specialists at retail stores have minimal knowledge in the art of acoustics and programming hearing aids. Once the device is purchased, the client is pretty much on their own.

Technology

According to the Food and Drug Administration, a hearing aid is listed as a Class A medical device, on par with a joint replacement. Hearing aid devices sold at big box retailers are often non-custom devices, containing 2nd tier features to make them less expensive.

Patients may see the same hearing aid in the retailer as they would in their audiologist’s office. However, this can be deceiving, because manufacturers don’t allow advanced programming options to chain stores, making the devices less expensive.

When combining inexpensive hearing devices with someone who has limited training in hearing loss and device programming, often the results can leave much to be desired. It’s important to know the credentials and experience of the person who is treating you. Cheaper prices are certainly appealing, but they may come with considerably more risk; and inexpensive devices become expensive when they don’t work properly, or are not suited for your particular kind of hearing loss.

“If you suspect that you have hearing loss,” Carla concludes, “the best thing to do is to take control of the situation, and get your hearing checked.”

If you have any questions or concerns about hearing aid devices, call 407.644.4883 or click here to schedule an appointment.