You are a hostage. Don’t despair.

It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.

Glenn here, husband of Barb. I’m channeling Robin Williams from the movie “Good Will Hunting”, because you need to know about something going on in the world of audiology and hearing aids. There are audiologists and dispensers alike who are plotting ways to take you hostage. But it’s not your fault that you don’t know. Apparently, this tactic is supposed to remain a State Secret.

What follows are excerpts from a discussion I am having right now with an audiologist in Portugal. Fortunately, his english is better than my portuguese. Much better. On a discussion board for hearing professionals I mentioned how I thought some audiologists in the US were abdicating their ethics in effort to make sales, which spurred this question from Joao:

Joao Ferrao

“… And please (I hope not pushing you to far) can you explain what do you mean with: “pursuing the path of taking patients      prisoner using methods designed to lock-in patients”? Thanks 😉

P.S.- Portuguese market is very different than yours. Here audiology is a newborn activity (15 years). So it’s very important for me  sharing and getting new knowledges.”

Here’s where you come in. Imagine you are Joao. Imagine you are listening to Barb, not me. I’m sure Barb would explain the situation better:

“Joao, about prisoners and lock-in. In the US there are groups of dispensers banding together to form loose “private networks”. Like a franchise, but not really. A description clear as mud and equally, as accurate. My audiologist wife Barb is a member of a form of one, but there are many – and many versions. It’s important to note that not all networks engage in the tactics below. As a matter of fact, most don’t (and for sake of clarity, the group Barb is a member of doesn’t take hostages). 

Back to the very important task of locking up prisoners, oops, patients:
A representative of a private network approaches a manufacturer. We want to feature your hearing aids. We will sell only your brand, but with the following conditions:
A. We don’t want to use your name “y”. We want to call it “x” instead.
B. Nobody else can use the name “x”. Only us.
C. We want you to change the name as seen on your fitting software to program your hearing aid “y” to display “x”, not “y”.
D. We want you to make it so only our network members can program the hearing aids named “x:” Nobody else. But we get to also program hearing aids “y” when they come through the door, too.

So beneath the outer shell, hearing aid “x” and its programming software is functionally identical to hearing aids the manufacturer sells to everybody as model “y” – except for hearing aids called “x” sold through the private network can only be programmed by network members.

In other words, a patient buys a hearing aid that people doing work in the industry knows is model “y”, but the patient isn’t informed that model “x” is actually model “y”, draped in a Hollywood-worthy costume. Patients are lead to believe they are getting an ultra-special model of hearing aid (from a major manufacturer!!!!, of course). They are not informed that if the name on the shell is removed, their hearing aid is actually model “y” that their friend down the street bought elsewhere. Patients are lead to believe their hearing aid “x” is more special than their friends hearing aid “y”, even though they are indeed identical in every manner except in costume and who can access the hearing aid to program it.

The manufacturer then continues to reinforce the ruse. A patient may be able to have their hearing aid programmed by a dispenser who is not a member of the private network (and maybe not, depending on whims and who farts), but the patient has to pay extra to get the hearing aid unlocked from the private network. So it costs the patient even more money to make hearing aid “y” into, well…. hearing aid “y”.

That, my Portuguese friend, is how you take patients prisoner.
Batteries, smoke, lies, and mirrors included.
Acts of Deception?
No charge.
Patients loss of freedom to choose?
Priceless. For the private network.
That’s what dispensers want to believe. I guess.
But I’m feeble minded. Can’t expect me to understand.
What’s REALLY going on. /gst

The problem I have with private label hearing aids is you are not being informed of restrictions you will later encounter. In essence, it’s like buying a new $32,000 Toyota Camry, then learning that you can only have your car serviced at five Toyota locations because your dealer swapped the Toyota-issued wheel covers for an aftermarket version.

How to protect yourself? Ask.

Before signing a purchase contract, ask your audiologist these questions:

  • Who manufacturers the hearing aid model being recommended? It should be a major name… Phonak, Starkey, Oticon, ReSound, Widex, Sonic Innovations or Siemens. If the audiologist answers with any other name, ask the question again. Press the issue. If you can’t get a clear answer of which major manufacturer makes the hearing aid, save yourself grief and choose another audiologist to work with.
  • Where can I get my hearing aids serviced? This part may be a bit tricky, because the answer can easily be misleading. What matters is whether you can take your hearing aids to any audiologist who dispenses [fill in brand name listed above], and it can be programmed without being charged a fee to “unlock” the hearing aid. Having flexibility is important if you move, travel, or simply wish to see another audiologist. I don’t care how many locations an audiologist cites as having access to because they are a member of a “special” group, none have locations everywhere and agreements to service hearing aids sold by “sister” clinics are notoriously unreliable. The closest group to having nationwide coverage is Costco (Kirkland-branded aids are locked) and Beltone (also locked). After that….. it’s spotty at best.
  • Ask your audiologist to show you the web page of the recommended hearing aid on the major manufacturers site (all start with the company name… phonak.com, starkey.com, oticon.com, etc.). If the audiologist doesn’t type in what you expect, you are probably being shown the private labeled version, not the official page created by the manufacturer for their product. A red flag if there ever was one. Nothing wrong with showing you both, though.
  • If you live in Southern Oregon (where Barb is located) call or email Barb with your questions. Yeah, this recommendation runs the danger of coming across as self serving but Barb and I are most concerned with you knowing what you are getting into before you buy. We know the brand names of quite a few hearing aids in the locked-in category and if we don’t, Barb or I will do the research for you gratis. Consider it a public service.
Remember as you go through the process, the goal you set for yourself – not to just hear, but to enjoy life.
Note: As you can surmise, I have no love of private-labeled hearing aids or for the process of locking you in as patient. I believe these developments are a disservice to you. However, I also believe you are smart enough to decide what is best for you as long as you know the benefits and pitfalls beforehand.
P.S. I posted this without Barb’s prior approval, and will probably get kicked in the you-know-what for doing it. Oh well, had that happen playing volleyball often enough so what Barb does shouldn’t be as bad. Anyway, I’ll get her to make additions and modifications as she sees fit. In the meantime (and the hereafter), have a ball.

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