Can you hear me now? Bluetooth hearing aids
Six months ago, hearing-aid salesman Doug Gibson decided to start pitching a new product to his customers: high-tech hearing aids that connect wirelessly via Bluetooth technology to cell phones, iPods and televisions.
He wondered whether anyone would buy them. Many of his customers are in their 70s or older, and some do not use cell phones, let alone hands-free sets or MP3 players.
Gibson found what other retailers are beginning to see as a trend. Baby boomers just beginning to need hearing aids are gravitating toward ones equipped to handle their gadgets, or disguise the hearing aid as one of them.
"They're pretty techie people, and they all have Bluetooth in their cars. Most are in their 50s to early 70s," Gibson says. "Soon I think we're going to be seeing a lot more."
Aging boomers, because of their large numbers and willingness to pay for style and comfort, are a target market for manufacturers. Increasingly, that goes for medical devices, too.
"When you look at things like vision, hearing, joint pain, mobility — a lot of those physiological changes, when they happen with boomers, are going to involve more technology and style," says Mary Furlong, who advises companies on how to sell to the baby-boomer market. "The durable-looking medical devices will be a thing of the past."
The hearing aid transmits signals wirelessly so that it can connect to your cell phone, with Bluetooth technology, and televisions, stereos and the popular portable audio player known as the iPod. Users wear a button, usually connected to a thin wire that can be worn inside a shirt; pressing it allows them to answer cell phone calls, turn on the television or listen to music. The sound is piped in directly through the hearing aid.
The actual hearing aid costs about the same as a standard mid-level aid, around $4,000. But the extra devices, including the controller, are another $1,000 to $1,500.
"They're more expensive, but when I get a baby boomer in here, that's what they're buying," says Liz Perry, hearing-aid specialist at the Silverstein Institute. "They come in asking for the Bluetooth compatibility for their cell phones and their iPods. They know it's out there."
Hearing aids with wireless technology entered the market about three years ago, but most makers offer them now.
"If they're not already carrying it, they're getting into it," says Connie Repass, office manager for Hearing Aid and Speech Systems in Sarasota. "You can hook almost any gadget in through your hearing aid."
Siemens advertises its version, called Tek Connect, as meeting "the needs of today's interactive hearing instrument wearer." In the brochure, the models are wearing business suits and toting Blackberrys. The product is not positioned as something to be disguised: "The Tek Connect remote control speaks the same language as your other high-tech toys, giving you better performance and true stereo sound quality."
Alexander Zschokke, vice president of marketing for Phonak, a Switzerland-based company that makes the wireless devices, says, "It's more like a high-tech gadget than a traditional hearing device."
Phonak, which released with its version two years ago, expects to sell almost solely to people in their 50s and 60s, and still views that as the growth market. But they also found that some of the buyers were older than that.
Irving Beychok, an 84-year-old retired surgeon living in Sarasota, bought one six months ago to use with his cell phone. He describes himself as always having been interested in new technology, usually well in advance of his friends. He has owned a computer since the days of floppy disks, and had one of the first cell phones to hit the market.
"I just wanted to try one with all these bells and whistles," Beychok says. "It is pretty neat. The idea is to turn what might be a disadvantage of wearing hearing aids into a real advantage."
Source: Scott, Anna. “Can you hear me now? Bluetooth hearing aids” Sarasota Herald Tribune, March 9, 2010.