Digital transformation in audiology

Comparable industries have shown us — if you’re open-minded and agile, digital transformation offers a big opportunity.

“Will I still have a job? What about data privacy? When will OTC (over-the-counter) come?”.

I have been touring the world for the last 4 years and telling the story about digital transformation in audiology. These are the usual questions I am asked by audiologists. It is a global phenomenon in audiology, no matter if you are a German, French, British, Brazilian, US, Canadian or any other regionally certified audiologist.

I do not have the ability to foresee the future but we can reflect and compare to other industries and try to understand the reasons for the change in general. We can also look at our own industry and adjacent ones. And lastly, we can look at new entrants, market players entering our industry from a different category such as consumer electronics.

Mega trend and drivers

The universal truth is that digital transformation is a mega trend and here to stay.

What is digital transformation? It’s more than an app. It’s also not a website. It is the transformational power of new technologies, which are changing whole value chains, business processes, products and services.

Digital transformation is for example AirBnB disrupting hotel businesses, Uber disrupting taxi businesses, Amazon disrupting book (in the beginning) and by now all retail business. How is this possible?

Let’s take the well documented AirBnB case. AirBnB offers a (web) platform connecting providers of rooms, apartments and houses with consumers and thus they created a completely new model serving the same need as hotels: a room to stay while traveling. A new business model enabled by new technologies (web/apps), driven by cost pressure (hotel prices, real-estate crises in 2008) and new empowered consumers, looking for more value for money and convenience.

The bad guys?

“Why do they do that? Why are these bad guys out there?”. It’s not about bad or good. If there is an unmet need there is a market. The supplier who can address the unmet need will eventually create a new market and be the leader. If there is no market, no buyer – there won’t be any vendors – at least not in sustainable way. Hence, we need to ask differently.

What are the unmet needs of our consumers, people with hearing impairment? Could it be that we have users out there who do not wear hearing aids because current products and services do not meet their expectations? I think yes. Actually, I think there are many of them. I think we as an industry have failed to increase market penetration of hearing aids over last decades – and price is not the main reason as we know from research.

New consumers

Who are they? It is not only age related. We can call them baby boomers, but not only since younger generations are getting involved too. The hypothetical consumer – let’s call him Alex – is of the generation of emancipated, empowered senior adults or elderly, often still working, with smartphones and connected, like most of us are. The user who is looking for convenience.

Foremost the user who does not like the current service model, does not like to be called “patient” or to be treated like a sick person. Such users gravitate towards alternative form factors but foremost alternative service models. They gravitate towards new types of offerings similar to lifestyle products such as glasses or headphones and not medical devices for chronic diseases. Honestly, I am 50 and I have a 65dBHL at 8kHz already – I feel exactly like Alex.

Hearables, PSAPs, Apps and OTC

Where there is an unmet need, there will be a market or supplier. Alex is the reason we are having the discussion in the first place. We as an industry fear the disruption. We are afraid of all the articles in magazines about new tech gadgets potentially disrupting our industry – just like hotels feared AirBnB and taxis feared Uber.

Again – why is there a market?

Digital transformation in audiology could, and in my opinion will be, the potential answer and huge opportunity to serve Alex’s unmet needs and potentially increase adoption in hearing devices by overcoming the famous, paralyzing stigma in *hearing aids* – yes, words again, who wants to wear an “aid”? What if Hearables and hybrid solutions (like apps with a device or new service models like OTC) open up and grow the market for younger users and they, over time, switch to a hearing devices?

The opportunity

Digital transformation offers a big opportunity for open-minded hearing care professionals who are not afraid to explore new products and business processes to serve the needs of the younger segment of users with unmet needs. There is no silver bullet. No one way to do it. There is the opportunity for the ones willing to try, willing to fail and learn and ultimately succeed. That is another phenomenon of digital transformation called agility.

Change is unavoidable

Digital transformation will also impact our industry, the question is only when and how. I propose we all try hard to address Alex’s unmet needs and create new roles, service models and products which address his expectations and ideally increase overall penetration of hearing devices and reduce stigma.

Personally I think that there will be huge gains in provided value for hearing impaired people in solutions and services through digital transformation – isn’t that the reason why we all became hearing care professionals and hearing device manufacturers in the first place?

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