Residents should shop around when looking for a hearing aid in Waco

The doctors that comprise Waco Ear, Nose & Throat have long incorporated an audiologist into their practice to offer hearing aids and related services to patients.

But at the end of last year, the practice opened a separate storefront next to its office to offer hearing aids to non-patients.

It’s called Physicians Hearing Center.

The main motivation for launching the center wasn’t monetary, said Dr. Bradford Holland, one of the practice’s medical doctors. It was a growing frustration with the poor service many local residents receive at other hearing aid businesses, he said.

Local audiologist Spencer Stirland says professional training gives audiologists an edge in fitting customers for hearing aids.
Local audiologist Spencer Stirland says professional training gives audiologists an edge in fitting customers for hearing aids.
Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune-Herald

One child, for example, showed up at Holland’s office with a hearing aid in the wrong ear. The business that sold it to his family had done his hearing tests incorrectly and, as a result, fitted the wrong ear.

Another patient had been sold a hearing aid for an ear that was completely deaf, Holland said.

Such extreme cases are fairly rare, but Holland said his practice routinely sees people who have been fitted with hearing aids that don’t work well for them, he said.

Sometimes, the person was sold an aid by someone just out to make a quick buck, Holland said.

But the problem often is that sellers don’t have enough knowledge to properly fit someone with an appliance.

While most audiologists complete four years of training, people can get licensed to dispense hearing aids in Texas with as little as 160 hours of training.

“The hearing aid marke is a little bit buyer beware,” Holland said. “You need to treat this as an investment. If you feel like you’re responding to a used car ad to get you in the door, you’ll probably be treated that way as well.”

Consumer advocates agree that shopping for a hearing aid can be challenging. The industry does an estimated $5 billion worth of business annually, and there are several types of sellers vying for a piece of it.

As a result, consumers often become confused about their options, advocates say. That increases the likelihood they will end up with a bad result. Consumer Reports found last year that two-thirds of people in a sample they evaluated had misfit hearing aids.

The magazine recommends that prospective buyers work with an audiologist employed by a medical office, such as Holland’s practice.

They tend to do more thorough testing, plus they can rule out medical issues that can cause hearing problems, it says.

Other consumer groups, including the AARP, simply urge consumers to carefully consider a seller’s credentials. Non-audiologists who sell hearing aids — called dispensers — can be a good option, they say.

Predictably different sellers tout their own business model. Melody Martin, who has an audiology business here, said it only makes sense that people with more education and training in hearing loss will be able to provide better service.

“We’re in the health care business,” Martin said. “A lot of people think shopping for hearing aids is like shopping for a toaster. But there’s a lot more to it.”

Spencer Stirland, an audiologist who works at Holland’s practice, agreed that audiologists’ training gives them an edge in fitting customers for hearing aids.

He said he chose to work at an ENT practice because medical offices are focused on helping patients, rather than selling products.

“I feel like our goals are more in line,” Stirland said.

Testing and treatment

Tom Lucenay, owner of Lucenay Hearing Aid Services in Waco, said he respects the training and expertise of audiologists. They can do some testing and treatment that dispensers can’t.

But when it comes to hearing aids, experienced dispensers such as himself can do just as good a job as audiologists, Lucenay said.

He said that when he started in the business 40 years ago, audiologists were actually prohibited from dispensing hearing aids. Lucenay also routinely sees people who have received poor service from incompetent or unscrupulous sellers in town, he said. But such businesses include those staffed by audiologists as well as dispensers, he said.

“I stand by my reputation,” Lucenay said. “My biggest advertisement method is word of mouth.”

What hurts the reputation of dispensers the most is fly-by-night sellers, said Rachel Weeaks, owner of Beltone Hearing Center in Waco.

The most notorious are those who sell out of vans at local shopping centers. They’re often from out of town and provide no follow-up services for customers.

Making adjustments

Experts say people in the market for hearing aids should be aware of their options as they shop for the right device to use. Newer models (front) are smaller and lighter than previous generations.
Experts say people in the market for hearing aids should be aware of their options as they shop for the right device to use. Newer models (front) are smaller and lighter than previous generations.
Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune-Herald

Such sellers are a bad idea, Weeaks said, because people who buy hearing aids need adjustments and other follow-up work.

“This is not something you put in your ear and we never see you again,” Weeaks said.

The reality is that the majority of people who buy hearing aids aren’t evaluated by an audiologist, much less one employed by an ENT practice, said Amyn M. Amlani, an associate professor in the Speech and Hearing Sciences Department at the University of North Texas.

In some cases, dispensers can be as good or even better at fitting hearing than audiologists, Amlani said.

The key is time on the job. An experienced audiologist is likely to provide the best service, Amlani said. But a veteran dispenser might outperform a newly minted audiologist, he said.

Amlani urged people to do research before they start shopping, not just about the seller’s credentials but also about hearing aids themselves.

That way, they have a better chance of recognizing when a particular seller isn’t knowledgeable or is pushing higher-priced models that the buyer doesn’t need, he said.

“(Otherwise) the end user is really at the mercy of the dispenser,” Amlani said.