John Bartolucci says there are roughly 28 million people in this country with some form of hearing loss. That’s about one in 10.
But only about a fifth of these individuals wear a hearing aid, said Bartolucci, president of Avada Hearing Care Centers and a 30-year veteran of this industry. There are several reasons for this phenomenon, he said, starting with denial.
“There will always be some people who just don’t want to admit that they’re getting older,” he said, adding that vanity is another reason why some people won’t get an aid, while economics and, in some cases, doubt about the effectiveness of the products also play a role.
But there are a number of converging factors that might change the numbers that Bartolucci mentioned, and for the better. For starters, the Baby Boom generation is getting older, he explained, and this health-conscious group is less inclined to forego opportunities to improve quality of life. Meanwhile, hearing aid technology has dramatically improved, and new digital and programmable models do much more than amplify sound, as products did a generation ago.
And still another factor is awareness, said Bartolucci, noting the company’s multi-faceted marketing efforts are designed to enlighten people about the many forms hearing loss can take — some are subtle but nonetheless important — and about ways the new technology can address these problems. Once people have a screening and take in a demonstration of the latest aids, they’re usually surprised by how their life can be changed, he said.
All this should leave Avada, a national company with some 200 locations, well positioned for the future, said Bartolucci, noting that as the huge Baby Boom generation reaches retirement age, with expectations of living another 20 or 30 years, there will be ample opportunities for hearing care service providers.
The challenge for those companies will be to deliver a consistent product, with the focus on quality service, not price. There is considerable competition in the hearing care market, he said, noting that some area hospitals have hearing centers and some department store chains sell hearing aids. Success will come to those companies that provide service before and after the hearing aid is fitted.
“This business isn’t about equipment, although that’s a big part of it,” he said. “Instead, it’s about relationships.”
Bartolucci said he is asked often about the price of hearing aids. He answers in two ways — by quoting the average cost of the products on the market (about $2,000), and then by turning things around and asking the inquirer about the cost of not getting an aid.
These costs can be substantial, he said, noting that children with hearing loss could have problems with learning, while in the workplace, hearing loss can make it more difficult to participate at meetings, talk with clients on the telephone, or understand what fellow workers are saying. These difficulties can lead to career-advancement problems for those with the hearing loss, said Bartolucci, and, in some professions, such as nursing, problems for others, as well.
Meanwhile, at home, hearing loss can create a good deal of stress for families that face challenges that go well beyond the volume level on the television. “I’ve heard people threaten divorce if their spouse doesn’t get a hearing aid,” he said, “and I’ve seen some divorces because the spouse didn’t get one.”
Making people aware of these costs is one of the challenges for those who in the hearing care industry, said Bartolucci, who told The Healthcare News that he couldn’t speculate on the size of that market, but does know it’s growing — and will continue to do so in the future as the Baby Boom generation ages and people live longer in general.
Well-positioned for this future is Avada, a company comprised of 12 former Belltone hearing aid specialists who banded together, formed a corporation, Hearing Healthcare Management (HHM), and carved out territories that now have several locations that sell and service products made by a number of hearing aid manufacturers.
Bartolucci, who now has 32 years of experience in the business, has most of New England in his region, which now has 16 locations — eight in Massachusetts, four in Vermont, and four in New Hampshire. Together, those offices yield about $4 million in sales annually. Locally, there are facilities in West Springfield (the regional headquarters), Wilbraham, Westfield, Easthampton, Greenfield, Pittsfield, Amherst, and the latest addition, Chicopee.
Bartolucci said convenience is a factor for some people with hearing loss — they may travel across town for a screening, but not across half the state — and thus Avada has strategically located sites in all four counties of Western Mass. and most of the area’s larger communities.
Additional expansion in this market is not likely, however, he said, adding that the current roster of sites should adequately serve the Pioneer Valley. The challenge for the company is to maximize opportunities presented by those sites through effective, targeted marketing.
Bartolucci said the company uses print, radio, and television to ask questions of area residents — such as ‘do you have trouble hearing soft sounds of voices?’ and ‘do you have trouble hearing background noise? — and then provide answers.
Years ago, many hearing aids sat in drawers because they were large, clumsy, and often didn’t provide solutions to the problems listed above and others like them, said Bartolucci, adding that advancing technology allows for subtle improvements in hearing that make a big difference in people’s lives.
New digital models have tiny microchips that can process sounds with more than one million calculations per second, said Bartolucci. He noted that perhaps the most advanced product on the market, made by the manufacturer Aura, uses state-of-the-art fusion of three recently developed background-noise-management systems, which work much like the human brain and automatically provide natural speech isolation.
The assignment for any hearing aid is to provide what would be considered normal hearing, Bartolucci explained, adding that for many people who have experienced hearing loss for some time, normal is too loud or too much. This is where service after the sale becomes important, he said, noting a specialist will continually work with a client to make sure that the new hearing experience is what is wanted and needed.
Making sure the aid is working properly isn’t just good for the client, it’s a sound business practice.
“If you leave someone out there with a hearing aid that doesn’t work properly, you’re creating some negative word-of-mouth advertising,” he said. “When you fit someone with a hearing aid, you’re married to them.”
And while hearing aids have become more efficient at problem solving, they have also become smaller and, therefore less noticeable, said Bartolucci, adding quickly that the smaller models usually don’t have the capabilities of larger ones. This is when individuals have to make choices.
“I’ll usually ask people, ‘what’s more important … how you’re going to look with your hearing aid, or how you’re going to hear?”
Looking down the road (and not very far down) to the time when the hearing care industry should see a large surge in business, Bartolucci says Avada is well-positioned for that day.
“We’re putting our ducks in a row,” he said, noting that assignment includes establishing enough locations to adequately service a region, and then providing quality products and service.
If all goes as planned, Avada will be doing a volume business — literally and figuratively.