Loud and clear! That's how the feedback sounded from readers following the recent column about one consumer's troubles with her hearing aids ("Listen Closely When Buying Hearing Aids: Pitfalls Abound," Sept. 4, 2005).
None of it was hearsay. The readers had firsthand experiences -- some good, most not -- with hearing-aid technology, retailers or manufacturers.
Which isn't to say that the right hearing aid can't help answer "yes" to the question: "Can you hear me now?" Many of these readers mentioned how hearing aids did allow them to live normal lives again. But more of them had complaints about steep prices, models that didn't work right, too-short money-back guarantee periods and general confusion about which hearing aid they needed. A common theme: They were sick and tired of hearing -- when they could hear -- that their hearing aids needed yet another adjustment.
Dowell Anders's e-mail was typical. He didn't like "the high price of the things" and "their shaky performance" over the 15 years since he bought his first pair. "I have a good life, if only I could hear better," says the 85-year-old retired federal government attorney and longtime Arlington resident now living in Bethany Beach, Del.
Anders's first hearing aids cost $1,948 and worked well except in crowded restaurants, where he heard everyone but the people seated closest to him. They "malfunctioned" two months after their one-year warranty expired. He upgraded in 1997 to a $4,200 digital set whose downside was that "they had to be taken in for servicing and repair periodically."
The $3,961 upgrade set he purchased two years ago has been "trouble from the beginning," he says. They aren't comfortable, one stopped working altogether, and the other beeps, chirps and changes volume on its own. "I have spent close to $10,000 on the things and am still fighting over my current ones," says Anders, who finds the whole hearing-aid buying experience to be uncharted sound waves for the average consumer.
Uttering the words "scam" and "conspiracy," he says the Federal Trade Commission should investigate the hearing-aid industry. Short of that, he says he'd settle for some impartial expertise. "I have yet to find any ratings of the quality and performance of the various brands," he says. "Do you know of any?"
Anders is right. Consumers Union, the mainstay organization that tests and rates so many consumer products, hasn't ventured down the ear canal. And, except for scant hearing-aid reviews written by retailers with a vested interest, no hearing-aid ratings are available.
"Unfortunately, there is no such rating system," says Bonnie O'Leary of the nonprofit Northern Virginia Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons (NVRC) in Fairfax, which serves more than 172,000 hearing-impaired people in Northern Virginia -- and those in other nearby metro areas, including Maryland and the District, where there are no equivalent services.
But there are good reasons why, says O'Leary, who wears hearing aids herself. "Hearing loss is a very individual disability so there is no one hearing aid that works for everyone."
Besides, a hearing aid's success depends on the expertise of the hearing-aid specialist in selecting the appropriate instrument, making the right fitting, choosing effective rehab (if there is one) and providing the long-term customer service. "I see hundreds of people who struggle with hearing loss, and each has his or her own story about how well or badly their hearing aid performs," O'Leary says.
While NVRC doesn't provide hearing-aid exams, fittings or repairs, it does offer free support, resources and information, including 28 fact sheets on topics including "hearing dogs" and cochlear implants, and it lends equipment including amplified phone ringers and doorbell alerts. It also offers free database referrals to audiologists, interpreters, camps for children with hearing loss, mental health counselors and classes in sign language and speech reading.
"We often have people come in who are struggling with their hearing loss or have a family member who has a hearing loss and they don't know what to do next," O'Leary says.
James M. McDonald, an audiologist for 30 years and director of clinical services at the Hearing Assessment Center in Lutherville, Md., says hearing aids are "medical devices," so the notion of rating them is like asking, "Is there any such product review for a pacemaker?"
McDonald says there is no shortage of high-quality hearing aids. "The challenge is picking the right level of technology for the patient so he gets a cost-effective solution to his particular problem," says the assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Estimating a better than 95 percent probability that hearing aids will work properly when prescribed correctly and worn properly, McDonald advises: "Seek the care of a licensed audiologist who belongs to such professional organizations as the American Academy of Audiology, Academy of Dispensing Audiologists and [the professional group] AuDNet. There are great technologies out there, but they need to be prescribed and used properly."
Carolyn Kay has worn hearing aids for 15 years and recommends going to a university hearing clinic for help. "As a teaching institution, they are interested in studying and relieving hearing loss. Their first mission is not to sell hearing aids," says the 66-year-old Arlington reader who found no-pressure assistance at the George Washington University Speech and Hearing Clinic. She even qualified for a "scholarship" to its intensive lip-reading class.
"Many people don't know about these clinics, but there may be a clinic, if not in their home town [then] at a nearby town with a university," she says. "They are always willing to meet with me and adjust my digital hearing aids."
Got questions? A consumer complaint? A helpful tip? E-mail details to email@example.com or write to Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.