It is hard to find anything in this report about a small hearing aid that distinguishes it from an advertisement. Indeed, people with hearing loss would get a more balanced presentation by viewing the manufacturer’s web site.
From the first line, in which the anchor refers to a totally unrelated study of hearing loss in children, to the gushing endorsement of the “amazing” device in the last line, the story sells the product. Viewers are not told that the only expert who appears in the piece is an adviser to the manufacturer. They are not told that this “new” device has been on the market for more than two years nor that the manufacturer described the device as equivalent to several other hearing aids in its application for FDA approval.
As if abject failure to provide an objective review of this hearing aid weren’t bad enough, the reporter and anchor go on to editorialize that the expensive device should be covered by insurance. Insurance coverage would undoubtedly boost sales, which one might almost believe was the purpose of this naïve and one-sided report.
The story says the hearing aid costs about $1700 per year, that it is more expensive than other hearing aids, and that like most hearing aids it is not covered by insurance. However, the manufacturer’s web site does not list a set price, saying that providers may charge additional fees for the required replacement visits and related services and testing.
Other news reports list costs ranging from $2500 to $3600 per year. The higher figure may refer to the price of two devices.
The story simply didn’t provide a context for understanding what the true cost may be.
At the beginning of the story, the reporter says “scientists” say this hearing aid has “improved sound quality compared to traditional hearing aids,” but no details are provided other than a reference to reduced wind noise.
The only limitation mentioned in this story is that some people may have ear canals that are too narrow for this hearing aid.
But even the manufacturer’s web site says that the device is not appropriate for about half of all candidates. In addition to the size and shape of the ear canal, other contraindications include the type or degree of hearing loss, a desire to swim regularly, and certain medical conditions. The manufacturer also points out that the device must be removed before a patient has an MRI scan (and then it can be reinserted only by an authorized provider.)
Other stories and online comments list a number of other potential problems or limitations.
Among the comments posted below a story on the New York Times web site is a user’s complaint that this hearing aid is itchy.
Other stories and comments about the device state include complaints that the sound quality may not be as good as other hearing aids, that showering or swimming may cause problems, and that it may not work for people with severe hearing loss.
There is no reference to any evidence. The story simply transmits the claims of the manufacturer and one hearing aid user.
The lead-in to the story says a “new study shows that one in eight children by the time they reach their teens will already experience some hearing loss.” This statistic seems to have no connection to the rest of the story, but along with the statement that “a huge majority of adults refuse to wear hearing aids due to vanity,” it reinforces an exaggerated view of the prevalence of hearing loss. According to the CDC, about 1 in 10 adults reports impaired hearing – and not all of them can be helped by hearing aids.
This story utterly fails to give viewers any independent perspective on this hearing aid. Viewers are not told that the doctor featured in the story is an adviser to the manufacturer, according to the doctor’s web site.
Although the story does refer to other hearing aids, by failing to mention any specifics about how the performance of this device compares to others and by failing to report that other hearing aids designed to fit within the ear canal have been available for more than a decade, the report does not give viewers any meaningful context about the alternatives.
The featured hearing aid is widely available. However, the story did not mention that patients must go to a provider authorized by the manufacturer and that, according to the manufacturer’s web site, there are no authorized providers in some major cities. In some cases, patients may have to travel a hundred miles of more to purchase the device. This limited distribution should have been part of the story.
This story claims the device is new; but according to the manufacturer’s web site, it has been available since January 2007.
What’s more, it is not the first hearing aid designed to be inserted into the ear canal. Indeed, in 1993 Discover Magazine gave an award to Philips for its “invisible” hearing aid. This 16 year old magazine story about the device’s appeal to the vanity of people with hearing loss is remarkably similar to ABC’s story about a “new” hearing aid.
In fact, the manufacturer of the hearing aid featured by ABC won FDA approval by claiming the device is equivalent to four other approved hearing aids, including the Philips device that was available in 1992, as well as other devices from other companies that were available in 1996, 1998, and 2002.
We can’t be sure if the story relied only on a news release, but it might as well have.