The series: We look at decision makers among Canada’s mid-sized companies who took successful action in a competitive global digital economy.
It’s a pivotal point in time for hearing technology.
Today, a walk through an urban shopping centre or down a busy city street almost anywhere in the world will reveal multiple people wearing small pieces of wired or wireless hearing technology in their ears.
Even 10 years ago, in-ear wireless devices were relegated almost entirely to those with hearing problems, the majority of whom were over a certain age. But when wireless headsets for mobile phones started hitting critical mass – especially with the introduction of one small product, the Apple AirPod – the perception of in-ear technology, as well as the demographic that uses it, has started to shift.
Some hearing health-care providers are embracing the wave of wearable technology to help reach more Canadians experiencing hearing loss.
Jeremy Baxter, vice-president of marketing at Connect Hearing, a hearing-health retailer based in Victoria, believes this is an opportunity for society to close a gap. A business with more than 400 staff and 100 locations across Canada, Connect Hearing is in the midst of an evolution spurred on by this technological turning point.
“The level of technology that’s coming down the road is what is allowing us to change the conversation from hearing aids or hearing loss to consumer lifestyle benefits,” Mr. Baxter says.
“Approximately one out of every two people over the age of 50 in Canada has some form of hearing loss, and the reason these people don’t actually choose to talk about this hearing loss is because they think it makes them seem old.”
According to industry data gathered by Connect Hearing, patients take an average of seven to 10 years to seek a solution for their hearing issues.
“For context, if you had trouble seeing today, you’d probably go to your doctor or your optometrist or ophthalmologist and you’d probably have glasses by the end of the week if you require them,” Mr. Baxter says.
Unlike with vision issues, however, people suffering from hearing loss often end up regressing socially, he adds, withdrawing from potentially embarrassing situations.
"One of our clients wasn’t comfortable leaving the house by herself for several years because of her discomfort in potentially having to understand someone who was speaking to her in public,” Mr. Baxter says. “But just a week after she got her hearing technology, she was walking around with a smile on her face saying ‘Hi’ to everyone.”
As younger generations flock to in-ear technologies, it gives companies such as Connect Hearing the opportunity to update the conversation. The bulky, functionally limited devices of yesteryear seem archaic compared with today’s technology.
Mr. Baxter likens the leaps in hearing technology to those in the telecommunications industry. If the analogue hearing aids of the 1980s represent a rotary telephone, with bulky designs and limited functionality, the digital aids pioneered in the 1990s symbolize the early cellular phones which were more compact, wireless and generally more useful.
Comparable to the modern smartphone, today’s top-of-the-line hearing devices are discreet in design and boast cutting-edge capabilities. Some units can dampen select sounds like background chatter in a coffee shop, provide Bluetooth connectivity allowing for the streaming of music, directions, other media from smart devices such as cellphones, and even have the ability to translate languages, in-ear in near real time.
And with the conversation starter already on the streets and in people’s ears, it becomes a question of how to communicate with those dealing with hearing loss, not what to communicate.
The other digital shift
For Mr. Baxter and those in similar positions, the way our society spreads information is also in the midst of a digital revolution.
At Connect Hearing, efforts are dedicated to producing educational content that goes beyond the promotion of devices and services. Digital resources like Connect Hearing’s free downloadable hearing-loss guide or articles published on its hearing-health blogs are distributed to existing and potential customers via social media channels Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Facebook in particular has proven to be a strong digital touch point for the brand. Through targeted advertising and diligent customer support, the company holds about 10 to 20 conversations with clients or potential clients on Facebook every day.
“These conversations could be with a new client who is curious about how to get a baseline hearing test for the first time, or it could also be someone who downloaded our hearing guide and has questions about one of the points in there, or it could be an existing client who is looking to book a follow-up appointment in their local clinic in Winnipeg because they’re curious about the latest technology,” Mr. Baxter says.
Other organizations are testing digital communication methods to give clients the ability to manage their wellness.
Its success relies on an accompanying in-person experience, especially when communicating with the senior population, says Ted Scott, vice-president of research and chief innovation officer at Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS), a consortium of five hospitals and five centres offering a variety of specialized provincial services in Hamilton, Ont.
It’s his job to develop innovative ways to deliver the health-care information gathered by HHS to the rest of the community. Today, many of these innovative methods – from post-surgery virtual visits with specifically trained nurses, to the creation of digital content from community events – involve the use of modern technologies like smartphones and digital channels like social media for communication and distribution.
“We’re trying to inform, educate, empower and basically gift decision-making back to patients and community members on their own health care,” Dr. Scott says. “But if you want to truly empower and educate, really give people the ability to manage their wellness, you have to go where the people are. The physical aspect needs to supplement what’s happening online. That may be at the doctor’s office, it might be at Shoppers Drug Mart, or it might be other places like that where they’re going looking for help.”
For this, Connect Hearing seems well situated. Founded in 1978 as a traditional network of brick-and-mortar clinics, its professionals are situated in communities with a growing digital community.