iHear Medical To Offer Hearing-Aid "Subscriptions"
Responding to the clamor for more affordable hearing-loss help, iHear Medical is planning to offer consumers pay-as-you go subscriptions for its hearing aids and services. The direct-to-consumer online provider will offer monthly payment plans designed to reduce the overall cost of ownership of hearing aids.
"iHEAR's patented service model lowers the entry point and saves consumers money by providing opportunities to subscribe to a combination of devices and services that addresses individual hearing needs and budget," said John Luna, CEO of iHEAR Medical. "Consumers will have the flexibility to adjust their subscription as their needs change."
The company said it will launch the subscription service in conjunction with mobile apps for wireless programming of a soon-to-be introduced next generation of products. Among other things, the new iHear hearing devices will feature "Internet-of-Things" (IoT) connectivity enabling consumers to interact with smart devices in their environment, the company said.
Direct-to-consumer hearing aids for $399
When it introduced its first products in 2014, iHear Medical was in the first wave of direct-to-consumer FDA-approved hearing aids promising to disrupt the industry with very low prices. It currently offers its iHear Max and Eva hearing aids for $399 each.
The hearing aids feature four sound profiles for people with mild-to-severe hearing loss. And like other direct-to-consumer hearing aids purchased online, the products cost far less than hearing aids purchased from an audiologist or licensed hearing-instrument dispenser.
iHear Medical also offers the only FDA-approved home hearing test that scores the user's hearing loss on a scale from one to five based on World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. The $69 iHEARtest kit includes personal-computer software and earbuds enabling users to self-administer a hearing-loss screening that helps them learn what kind of products they need. Results guide iHear customers to adjust their devices to the appropriate sound profiles.
Hearing aids as the new "wearables"
At the same time, iHear Medical is positioning for the next wave of low-cost hearing aids that will feature vast improvements in functionality. In an interview, iHear founder Adnan Shennib said the company intends to integrate new chip technologies that "will deliver a lot more than hearing enhancement."
"People are buying wearables in mass quantities now," Shennib said. "And the potential for ear-level wearables will exceed that of smart watches."
“The potential for ear-level wearables will exceed that of smart watches.”Adnan Shennib, iHear Medical founder
The market has been flooded with smart watches and other consumer wearables. They feature technologies that include vital-sign monitoring, fitness and workout trackers, integration with the vast world of other smartphone apps, and (soon) Internet-of-Things connectivity to all kinds of web-connected appliances. And Apple’s Siri, Google Voice, Amazon Alexa and other voice-activated artificial-intelligence services are rapidly integrating with all kinds of wearables.
Shennib predicts that the next generation of hearing devices will be positioned not as hearing aids but as wearables. And Shennib believes this new positioning will eliminate the social stigma that hindered consumer acceptance of previous generations of hearing aids.
Next-generation chip technologies will transform hearing aids
While iHear Medical isn't ready to disclose when its new products will arrive, it has signaled its intention to deliver next-generation functionality that transforms affordable hearing aids. In March 2018, the company joined forces with Atlazo Inc. to develop an advanced digital hardware platform to power iHEAR's next generation of hearing aids and hearables.
Atlazo's ultra-low power System on Chip (SoC) platform will offer machine learning, analytics, connectivity and integrated power management capabilities, enabling unprecedented energy efficiency, size reduction, and cost savings. The digital hardware platform is designed to offer web-connected health tracking, voice commands, and seamless connectivity to other smart devices, including mobile phones and home appliances.
Shennib holds dozens of patents for advanced hearing aids technologies and previously founded of Lyric Hearing, an invisible hearing aid that an audiologist implants deep within the patient's ear canal for use over extended periods. Lyric, which Sonova’s Phonak brand acquired in 2010, pioneered a subscription-pricing model for its extended-wear hearing aids.
Subscription pricing: an old idea whose time has come?
iHear Medical's next-generation devices will be delivered through a new subscription payment model that will offer end-to-end web-based support for people with hearing loss. Consumers will be able to acquire hearing aids and optional wireless services on a pay-as-you-go model, with plans offering personalized hearing experiences that fit each customer's budget and individual needs.
Subscription pricing is similar to but not the same as a standard financing option. Like a purchase paid in installments, a subscription fee lets you acquire hearing aids for more affordable monthly payments. But rather than charging interest on payments to cover a purchase, subscription pricing treats hearing assistance as an ongoing service. Rather than buying a product, the consumer pays a monthly fee for the hearing assistance required, including hearing aids.
Subscriptions aren’t new to the hearing-aid industry. Independent audiologists occasionally offer hearing aids and associated services on a monthly fee-for-service model rather than a one-time purchase. But other than the subscription service for Lyric hearing aids now offered by Phonak, most manufacturers prefer selling their products independently of services, either directly to consumers or on a wholesale basis to audiologists and other resellers.
A subscription fee can enable more flexibility in delivering hearing-health services. It can cover product upgrades, new connected assistive listening devices that may come along, a different mix of services that may be required, or other changes in the mix. And consumers can pay as they go, suspending payments if they no longer want the service without being obligated to pay off a purchase balance.
As more direct-to-consumer (and future over-the-counter) hearing-aid makers enter the market, they will have to experiment with the best ways to engage with consumers and efficiently meet their needs for affordable hearing assistance. If iHear Medical’s subscription pricing is successful, it may be a model for others to emulate.