Thursday, September 24, 2015

Dr.Sreekant Cherukuri creates hearing aids to fit low-price niche

Ear, nose and throat doctor Sreekant Cherukuri found that some of his patients couldn’t fork over thousands of dollars for the hearing aids he had available, so he made a new one.

Six years later, his direct-to-consumer company MDHearingAid has 22 employees, a manufacturing facility in Detroit and three options for hearing aids that cost less than $600.

The size of his business pales compared with large hearing aid makers such as Sonova, Siemens and Starkey Hearing Technologies. But Cherukuri said he thinks his product brings sorely needed price transparency and choice to the market. Now, he says he’s working to make his products better and cheaper.

MDHearingAid’s employees work out of a Chicago operations office and the manufacturing facility, and the company plans to continue hiring, Cherukuri said.

“Based on my research and interaction with patients, (I realized) if we made a one-size-fits-most, pretty good hearing aid that’s user-adjustable, we could actually do it, and do it at a cost-effective price point,” he said.

Custom-fit hearing aids typically cost $1,000 to $6,000 for a pair, and most insurance companies don’t cover them, according to Consumer Reports.

MDHearingAid now offers three options — at $199.99, $349.99 and $549.99 per ear. Users can adjust the aids based on their needs or environment, Cherukuri said.

“We’ve positioned ourselves not as the hearing aid of choice,” he said. “The best solution is a custom fit, but that’s going to cost you some money. The second-best option is an affordable hearing aid.”

MD Hearing Aid- The Doctor's Choice for Affordable Hearing Aids

Dr. Cherukuri was an attending physician in otolaryngology and found most patients couldn't afford hearing aids.

MDHearingAid’s devices are direct-to-consumer, meaning consumers don’t need to see a professional to purchase them. Buyers must click a box indicating MDHearingAid has advised them that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the State of Illinois have determined their “best interest would be served” if they received a medical evaluation before purchasing a hearing instrument.

Customers are not required to take a hearing test to purchase aids through the company. They can, however, take a test and send it to the company's licensed hearing aid dispensers, audiologists and ear, nose and throat doctor, who can make recommendations, Cherukuri said.

More expensive hearing aids are often bundled in special features and professional services such as fitting and adjustments, said Todd Ricketts, a board member of the American Academy of Audiology and a Vanderbilt University Medical Center professor of hearing and speech sciences.

“A professional is not just evaluating hearing loss; they’ll evaluate the shape, geometry and size of ear,” he said. “They’ll also evaluate listening needs: Where are you having problems? What types of situations?”

The reaction from the hearing community to the direct-to-consumer hearing aid market is a notable parallel to the optometric community’s view on Chicago-based Opternative, which this year began offering online refractive exams to consumers.

Andrew Bopp, executive director for the Hearing Industries Association, said professional examinations can determine whether there’s a medical reason for hearing loss, whether it’s as simple as impacted earwax or a more serious condition.

“You should always see somebody,” Bopp said.

Five industry groups related to the hearing aid industry, including the American Academy of Audiology and the American Speech-Language Hearing Association, expressed caution in 2012 about a growing trend of direct-to-consumer hearing aids. Other examples include aids from America Hears, HearSource and Hi HealthInnovations.

“While we appreciate the desire of persons, companies, and organizations to reach more individuals in need of hearing aids, our organizations believe that patients must have access to a comprehensive hearing evaluation performed by a hearing health professional, be appropriately fitted by an individual licensed/registered in the state to dispense hearing aids, and have access to auditory rehabilitation and counseling to ensure appropriate fit and use of the hearing aid device,” the groups said in a statement.

Another group, the Hearing Loss Association of America, took a different stance on direct-to-consumer services.

“Our stance is to give innovative programs such as this one a chance,” Brenda Battat, the group's executive director at the time, said in a 2012 statement regarding an online hearing test offered by UnitedHealthcare’s hi HealthInnovations.

Though the group said it always encouraged consumers to work with professionals when purchasing hearing aids, “… because of the multitude of approaches available to consumers to address their specific health care needs today and because not all individuals will need the same level of care HLAA is recommending caution with trying to shut down innovative models that might be a viable alternative for some people."

Cherukuri said he also recommends customers receive a hearing test before purchasing aids. But he said his company gives consumers the option of a quality product for less than the industry-average price.

“I can say a large percentage of our customers (if not vast majority) have had a hearing test, experienced the sticker shock and come to us for their needs,” he wrote in an email to Blue Sky.
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