Future of hearing healthcare

Understanding what hearing health customers need

Kat Penno spent years forging a digital practice to reflect her vision of proactive hearing healthcare service delivery. Find out what she learned during these years, and what she now envisions for the future of professional hearing services.

Doesn’t it blow your mind that the average age for hearing aid adoption is 72 years of age? It also blows my mind that people can wait up to 8 years to finally feel motivated to acquire hearing aids from the time of confirming their hearing loss!

There are lots of themes and questions to unpack here, but one I find myself always circling back to is “Why aren’t people proactive about their hearing health?”. Why don’t we have customers who are excited to manage their hearing health, like they are excited to track their health & well-being stats via their smart watch, smartphone, or even now smart ring?

What I learned through observations and conversations

When I started my career in the clinic, I observed several important things:

  • That clients needed more than a device to succeed with maintaining good hearing health habits and/or see positive rehabilitation outcomes. The problem was, I wasn’t trained to offer much more.
  • A vital step in the hearing rehabilitation journey is continuous, personalized counselling to support clients to achieve their hearing goals and become successful, confident hearing advocates and hearing aid wearers.
  • The language in the clinic doesn’t reflect the services we want to (and should) offer. For example, appointments are called “hearing aid fittings” or “follow ups.” I never saw appointments called “counselling,” “communication strategies,” or “rehabilitation discussions.” The language we continue to use reflects the single focus of hearing aids and not the broad spectrum that is hearing health.

Repeated conversations and appointments with clients and their significant others reconfirmed these observations, not to mention similar conversations with more experienced audiologists and colleagues.

The other significant factor I observed during these years was clients seeking more information and validation from online sources. Reviews and online forums were becoming a popular source for clients to ‘refer’ to both prior to, and after, appointments. They wanted to gain information and confidence to make better decisions towards their hearing health.

At this time there was one leader in our field, Blamey Saunders Hears, who was practicing delivering services and devices differently from the status quo, and this really inspired me.

Additionally, I had written my thesis in Online Service Delivery models and was motivated to meet the customer where they were getting their information. In 2018, I founded Hearing Collective and I focused on offering telehealth services and personalized rehabilitation plans to clients.

I spent a large portion of 2018-19 understanding the online customer experience and connecting with other health professionals who were creating very smooth virtual online experiences.

For me, it was about connecting the dots and finding client driven solutions. Meeting the client where they felt most comfortable and answering them from an evidence-based point of view. Providing hearing health solutions in a more available and open setting and typically earlier than the traditional model of care time frame, so to speak.

What it meant to try design something myself

I now know that, maybe even without realizing it at the time, I was helping to create the future of service delivery: Non-standard hours that answered client’s questions/queries when they demanded it. I worked with a younger demographic, ranging from parents of children with hearing concerns to working adults.

It was an interesting time, with a lot of insights into how the behaviors of consumers were being shaped and influenced by online communities, forums, and digital products.

Whilst the uptake was slow at the beginning from a consumer point of view, I felt privileged that colleagues would refer their clients to me for telehealth services. Some I knew, some I had never met. And they came from all across Australia.

This further confirmed and motivated me to pursue this path to deliver hearing health services more broadly by utilizing digital tools. What I enjoyed and valued the most was giving the consumer the option to have their questions answered in a convenient medium.

Then came the consulting portion to Hearing Collective, which took two paths. The first one found me consulting to consumer electronic companies, and the second path saw me supporting health businesses to implement a telehealth option to support their traditional models of care. It was fantastic to see our profession changing and learning how better to serve customers. 

Overall, the education and learnings I had from starting my own healthcare business have served me well. Not only did I get to explore and utilize a variety of platforms to build my business, wearable and hearable products, I was able to get a deeper understanding of what consumers wanted and how they behaved with hearing rehabilitation.

What does the future of hearing healthcare actually look like?

While the traditional models of care will still serve their purposes, the conversations clinically will change, and how we measure and track our client’s progress and goals will improve. I believe it’s critical that our profession shifts away from a focus on devices, and towards client-focused solutions across the broad spectrum of hearing health care for all ages.

How do we do it?

It will be data driven, deeply personalized . . . and consumer led and clinical guided. Here is a closer look at each of those components:

  • Multi-dimensional data collected and deeply personal
    What I envision from hearing technology (beyond what is available now) is the ability to capture the noise or sound environment, locations, real-time consumer feedback/input of concerns/likes, and gain instant support/feedback. This collection of biometrics all compiled into an application. The consumer can then choose to select as much or as little information as they want. All of these combined with a health app that can combine co-morbidities to alert the customer to changes in health vitals.
  • Consumer led
    To make sure the data and detail are accurate and personalized, a large portion of the change in behavior we as professionals are seeking is early hearing-health management, and continued management. We also want our clients to maintain engagement with their tools regularly. The tools to achieve the improved signal-to-noise ratios, signal processing, fit, application use and management are evolving to address the technical aspects of consumer needs.
  • Clinician guided
    As automation, machine learning and all the big-picture data evolves and improves in accuracy and availability, certain tests that can be automated or self-used, such as audiometry and speech recognition, will mean less time testing clients and more time spent analyzing client specific data (beyond data logging and environments) and educating our clients on why something is important and how to achieve their hearing and listening goals.

To sum up, expect our roles as traditional audiologists (testing and informational counselling) to evolve to include a deeper understanding of what data means to the client, how to improve outcomes and environments, and how to maximize communication in the real world. Some of us may even work in a dynamic real-time environment, providing support and coaching to address client issues immediately.

The opportunities in how and what we can deliver to our client’s and their significant others is going to change. It’s a great time to be in our industry!


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