The COVID-19 pandemic has created permanent changes throughout society, including the health care landscape. As society inches towards reopening, audiologists would benefit from updating their understanding of patients’ needs for hearing health care. An ongoing study conducted by Auditory Insight identified four post-pandemic trends that impact how audiologists may best market their practices.1
We conceive of the marketing function in broad, strategic terms. Marketing includes not only marketing messages and promotional campaigns, but also product selection and place, i.e., the retail experience audiologists create for their patients. Our recommendations reflect this perspective.
BABY BOOMERS & HEALTH CARE
For most audiologists, their core patient constituency is the baby boomer generation, currently 57 to 75 years old. In addition to this demographic's purchasing power—baby boomers hold 53% of the wealth in the US—their sheer numbers could fuel demand for hearing aids.2 About 20 million baby boomers in the United States have hearing loss, with the prevalence of hearing loss exceeding 50% among those aged 70 to 79, according to Auditory Insight research.3
The pandemic has not completely upended baby boomers’ health care needs. They will continue to sign up for Medicare, manage chronic health conditions, and require access to prescriptions. However, the pandemic has brought into relief four key trends for this generation.
TREND #1: GROWING INTEREST IN TELEHEALTH
Continuing to serve baby boomers in a post-pandemic world requires understanding their growing interest in telehealth. More than one-quarter of baby boomers report post pandemic that they prefer video visits for primary care, according to an HIMSS March 2021 survey on telehealth (see Fig. 1).4 Most patients who prefer telehealth for primary care would also do so for routine hearing aid appointments.
Patients who view hearing aids as consumer products, as opposed to medical devices, may be even more willing to seek virtual care with an audiologist. During the pandemic, baby boomers increased their online spending by almost 50%, having adapted to and embraced services like grocery delivery and Amazon Prime.5
Will baby boomers’ interest in telehealth dwindle now that about 80% of them are fully vaccinated?6 Our research forecasts that at least one-fifth of baby boomers will continue to prefer telehealth for audiological care. The telehealth genie is out of the bottle: Baby boomers have experienced the convenience and flexibility of connecting with a provider while in the comfort of their homes.
Recommendation #1: Offer Telehealth Options. In order to respond to baby boomers who prefer telehealth, audiologists may conduct hearing aid fine tuning and troubleshooting over video calls. Audiologists would benefit from teaching this demographic how to change wires and domes over video calls. Telehealth companies such as Lexie Hearing and Listen Lively routinely coach patients through these processes.
In addition, audiologists may consider a hybrid customer service model, conducting otoscopy, a full audiometric assessment, device selection, and real-ear measurement in a single appointment. The key is to use trial hearing aids or aids in stock during this appointment, later shipping the programmed, new hearing aids directly to the patient, as state regulations allow. Phonak US, for example, has created a best practice model for their hearing care professionals leveraging this approach.7
For new patients or those needing an upgrade, audiologists may recommend hearing aid models with Bluetooth connectivity and remote programming apps that permit virtual care. Audiologists would also benefit from displaying telehealth options prominently on their websites. When patients book appointments, ask about and record their telehealth preferences.
TREND #2: HEALTH & FITNESS TRACKING IN APPS & WEARABLES
Baby boomers have learned to track their health and fitness using wearables and smartphone apps. During the pandemic, the general adoption of wearables, such as the Apple Watch, skyrocketed 10 percentage points across all generations.8Mobiquity specifically estimates that 42% of baby boomers now use a smartwatch or wearable to monitor their health.9 The robust Mobiquity estimate may stem from a survey population that skews towards upper-income respondents; however, patients who purchase premium hearing aids also generally have higher purchasing power. These polls evince this generation's perspective that knowledge is power when it comes to staying on top of personal health.
Recommendation #2: Market the Importance of Exercise. Audiologists would benefit from determining which of their baby boomer patients are interested in physical fitness. Long-term exercise delays the progression of age-related hearing loss.10 Audiologists may use this information to counsel patients and also as a positive marketing message on their website and in other communications.
For patients specifically interested in health and fitness tracking, the Starkey Livio AI11 is capable of counting steps, eliminating the need for a separate step counter such as the Fitbit.
TREND #3: THE ONGOING ATTRACTION OF TV ENTERTAINMENT
Despite baby boomers’ desire to stay healthy, they spend more time in front of the TV than exercising by a whopping factor of 15. Prior to the pandemic, they averaged at least three hours of television every day.12 The pandemic has only increased screen time across generations.13 In addition to counseling that exercise promotes whole-body health, audiologists benefit from acknowledging and addressing many patients’ interest in watching TV. These patients need to be able to hear programs without blaring the volume, creating discomfort for others.
Recommendation #3: Demonstrate How To Improve Leisure Time. On websites and in other communications, audiologists may promote that they help patients hear better across all aspects of their lifestyle, including watching TV. Offer to instruct patients on how closed captioning works on streaming platforms. Audiologists may also point patients in the direction of specific devices like the Nuheara IQstream TV or Oticon ConnectLine that, in conjunction with those company's hearing devices, amplify TV audio.14, 15
TREND #4: WORKFORCE PARTICIPATION AND JOB HUNTING
Auditory Insight's research demonstrates that hearing better at work is the primary catalyst for people under 65 to seek treatment for hearing loss.16 Professional office workers struggle to hear over Zoom calls while front-line workers such as ride-sharing drivers strain to hear passengers in the back seat.
Prior to the pandemic, more than half of baby boomers were still in the civilian labor force, employed in full- or part-time jobs.17 COVID-19 forced a higher rate of retirement in people aged 65 and older but did not impact the retirement rate for baby boomers aged 57-64.18
For these younger baby boomers, the pandemic has shifted the distribution of jobs in the economy toward those requiring new training or fluency with digital tools.19 Workers as a result are reevaluating their functional roles and industry choices. For people who are interviewing for new jobs, the act of hearing is essential.
Baby boomers in the workforce are understandably sensitive to the societal stigma surrounding hearing loss and hearing aids. Stereotypes, portraying people with hearing loss as “out of touch,” “old,” or even “crippled” are antithetical to the personas that people need to project at work.20
Recommendation #4: Prioritize Patients’ Schedules and Make On-Balance Suggestions. To adapt to working patients’ busy lives, audiologists may offer flexible office hours. Evening hours on Thursdays or a Wednesday-Sunday office schedule is an investment that signals a practice values patients’ time. To further attract these younger boomers, include messaging about the importance for patients of hearing well at work.
For patients concerned about stigma, recommend a discreet hearing aid. Fully in the ear canal, the Phonak Virto B-Titanium is a highly-rated, nearly invisible hearing aid.21, 22 The device's inconspicuousness may outweigh certain inconveniences, like the need to create a custom-fit mold and the lack of rechargeable batteries or Bluetooth streaming.
The Signia Active Pro takes a completely different approach in that this fully featured hearing aid camouflages as an earbud.23 Designed for people with mild to moderate hearing loss, these hearing aids are ready to wear and offer rechargeability and direct Bluetooth streaming on iOS devices. The aids look sleek, in colors like white and rose gold.
ADDRESSING BABY BOOMERs' POST-PANDEMIC HEARING HEALTH NEEDS
COVID-19 caused unprecedented societal upheaval that has worked its way to the provision of hearing health. To stay relevant, audiologists would benefit from upgrading their full marketing mix—from product selection to marketing messages to the retail experience—to reflect patients’ current priorities and lifestyle (see Table 1 for a summary of recommendations). Recognizing the growing importance of telehealth and fitness tracking, the ongoing attraction of TV entertainment, and the changing nature of work will enable audiologists to maximize their marketing efforts.
1. Auditory Insight, Auditory Insight Home Page
2. Federal Reserve, Distribution of Household Wealth Since 1989
3. Auditory Insight, Hearing Loss Market Size and Segmentation in the US
4. Healthline, Telehealth: HIMSS Survey Provides Clues About Path Forward
5. The Washington Post, Baby boomers, to retailers’ surprise, are dominating online shopping
6. The Center for Disease Control, Demographic Trends of People Receiving COVID-19 Vaccinations in the U.S.
7. Phonak, The Latest from eAudiology
8. RockHealth and Stanford Medicine Center for Digital Health, Digital Health Consumer Adoption Report 2020
, p. 27
9. Mobiquity, Digital Health Use Among Baby Boomers
10. National Center for Biotechnology Information, Effects of Long-Term Exercise on Age-Related Hearing Loss in Mice
11. Starkey, Starkey Livio
12. Bureau of Labor Statistics, American Time Use Survey 2019 Results
, figure 11A
13. BBC, TV watching and online streaming surge during lockdown
15. Oticon, Watch TV with ConnectLine
16. Auditory Insight, Proprietary Survey Data
17. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Status of the Civilian Noninstitutional Population
18. Pew Research Center, The Pace of Boomer Retirement Has Accelerated in the Past Year
19. The New York Times, Some jobs may never return. Moving those workers into new careers is an enormous challenge.
20. The Gerontological Society of America, Margaret Wallhagen, The Stigma of Hearing Loss
21. Phonak, Phonak Virto B-Titanium
22. Forbes, Best Hearing Aids from Audiologists in 2021
23. Signia, Upgrade to the Future with Signia Active Pro