Consumer NZ makes noise about the hearing aid industry
Consumer NZ is concerned that some clinics’ commission-based sales may have led to unsatisfactory care for some New Zealanders. The watchdog is calling for improvements to the hearing aid industry.
With one in six New Zealanders suffering from some form of hearing loss, the hearing aid industry plays a significant role in the health and wellbeing of more than 880,000 of us.
Advertising gives the impression that accessing suitable hearing aids is easy – with offers of free hearing checks, aids from just $1 per day and 10-day no-obligation trials.
“Our research has found getting the help you need at an affordable price, is no easy task,” said Vanessa Pratley Consumer NZ investigative writer.
“Some customers have found themselves unwittingly liable for thousands of dollars in repayments for hearing aids,” said Pratley.
Here in New Zealand, the big retailers such as Triton, Audika and Bloom are all owned by the manufacturers, and these companies own more than 80% of clinics in Aotearoa.
“We are concerned that clinics might be subjected to top-down commercial pressures, where audiologists are incentivised to prioritise profits over people.”
A preliminary hearing
After booking himself in for a hearing test at Triton, Dave* left with a pair of hearing aids that he was told he could trial, for free, over a 10-day period.
Dave has a condition which makes it difficult to do things with his hands – like inserting hearing devices into his ears. During his appointment, he was assured that inserting the hearing aids would take practice to get right.
The aids fell out 15 times over the 10-day trial period, and after a walk on the beach, he discovered one was missing.
At the end of his free trial, he received a call from the clinic asking for his bank account details to deduct what he owed – a staggering $10,000.
“If I had known they were that expensive, I never would have done the trial," said Dave.
Dave described his clinic experience as “a misleading lack of information.” With Consumer’s help he fought back against the charge and later visited another clinic where he got the same aids properly fitted for $6500 less than Triton was charging.
“One audiologist told us they were ‘depressed but not surprised’ to learn about Dave’s experience.
“Sadly, Dave’s story isn’t a standalone case,” said Pratley.
“We heard from one consumer whose aids were so badly fitted she had to take pain medication to endure using them.
“Another person told us they felt the actions of a clinic amounted to bullying.”
Coming to our senses
“At Consumer, we are concerned that the industry prioritises sales targets and commission incentives over customer care,” said Pratley.
In addition, audiology isn’t a government-regulated profession – which means anyone can call themselves an audiologist.
“Unlike doctors, nurses or chiropractors, audiologists aren’t legally considered health practitioners. We think this needs to change.”
The New Zealand Audiological Society (NZAS) is the self-regulatory body representing audiologists in New Zealand. However, membership is voluntary, and members are only required to disclose real or perceived conflicts of interest relating to finance. There is scope for NZAS’ ethics code to be much more comprehensive.
An investigation by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) in 2017 found that consumers and clinicians believed that some aids were recommended based on commission – rather than a person’s needs.
Consumer is concerned that New Zealanders are not receiving consistent, ethical, and cost-effective care when it comes to their hearing health.
“We want clinics in Aotearoa to review their pricing programmes, to be transparent about sales incentives, and for the government to consider introducing robust regulatory options that support and protect consumers,” said Pratley.
“We would also like to see the NZAS actively enforce its code of ethics to protect hearing professionals from industry pressures.”
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.