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Why Are Digital Hearing Aids So Expensive? 727

Posted by timothy
from the what-the-market-will-hear dept.
sglines writes "Over the last couple of years I've been slowly getting deaf. Too much loud rock and roll I suppose. After flubbing a couple of job interviews because I couldn't understand my inquisitors, I had a hearing test which confirmed what I already knew: I'm deaf. So I tried on a set of behind-the-ear hearing aids. Wow, my keyboard makes clacks as I type and my wife doesn't mumble to herself. Then I asked how much: $3,700 for the pair. Hey, I'm unemployed. The cheapest digital hearing aids they had were $1,200 each. If you look at the specs they are not very impressive. A digital hearing aid has a low-power A-to-D converter. Output consists of D-to-A conversion with volume passing through an equalizer that inversely matches your hearing loss. Most hearing loss, mine included, is frequency dependent, so an equalizer does wonders. The 'cheap' hearing aids had only four channels while the high-end one had twelve. My 1970 amplifier had more than that. I suppose they have some kind of noise reduction circuitry, too, but that's pretty much it. So my question is this: when I can get a very good netbook computer for under $400 why do I need to pay $1,200 per ear for a hearing aid? Alternatives would be welcome."
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Why Are Digital Hearing Aids So Expensive?

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  • Why? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by headkase (533448) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @03:31PM (#31465784)
    It's a guess but a solid one: competition.
    • Medical... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Gription (1006467) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @03:37PM (#31465838)
      It is a medical device which means that it is subject to insane levels of litigation. Mostly you are probably paying for insurance.
      • Re:Medical... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by HungryHobo (1314109) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @03:41PM (#31465882)

        and regulation/licensing on medical devices.
        That's a really expensive one.

        • Re:Medical... (Score:4, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 13, 2010 @04:29PM (#31466352)

          Also people are always going to be paying for it with insurance, so the price doesn't actually hit consumers. There's no reason for a consumer to buy a cheaper hearing aid, so prices inflate.

          • Re:Medical... (Score:5, Insightful)

            by AigariusDebian (721386) <aigariusNO@SPAMdebian.org> on Saturday March 13, 2010 @06:33PM (#31467308) Homepage

            With the info floating around during this whole US health care debate, I would agree to the above point:

            If you try to do anything medical or get any medical device in the USA you would be charged 10-50 times more than it actually costs. The prices are grossly inflated and then the big insurance companies negotiate them down by 90% or so. This is mostly in make sure that you don't go and get healthcare on your own. It also serves as a good way to keep some new insurance company from springing up - if you are not big enough, you can't negotiate such a discount, so you can't be profitable.

            The insurance companies are all in a cartel. It would be illegal for any other business, but health insurance companies have a special exception.

            There is no free market in health insurance in the USA and there has never been one, so there is no competition. Thus all the prices and profit margins are simply decided at the cartel meeting without any regard to real cost or social benefit.

            My advice - go to a country with a real healthcare somewhere in EU or Canada or Asia and get some hearing aids there. It will come out cheaper even with a plane ticket.

            • Re:Medical... (Score:5, Informative)

              by jonbryce (703250) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @07:51PM (#31467950) Homepage

              My very unscientific research suggests that hearing aids cost around £3,000 (approx $4,500) in Britain.
              Source: http://www.rnid.org.uk/community/forums/products/hidden_hearing/ [rnid.org.uk]

              In Europe, Hungary may be cheaper. A lot of health tourists go there.

              • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

                by Cederic (9623)

                Depends on the model. My current aids cost £2200 for the pair.

                They are very expensive for their complexity but as suggested, form is a big factor - mine need the battery changing once every few days and fit discretely inside the ear so it's not obvious that I'm wearing them.

            • Re:Medical... (Score:5, Informative)

              by JesterJosh (1615053) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @07:55PM (#31467998)

              the big insurance companies negotiate them down by 90% or so. This is mostly in make sure that you don't go and get healthcare on your own. It also serves as a good way to keep some new insurance company from springing up - if you are not big enough, you can't negotiate such a discount, so you can't be profitable.

              The insurance companies are all in a cartel. It would be illegal for any other business, but health insurance companies have a special exception.

              There is no free market in health insurance in the USA and there has never been one, so there is no competition. Thus all the prices and profit margins are simply decided at the cartel meeting without any regard to real cost or social benefit.

              Over the last couple of years I've been slowly getting paranoid. Too much reading slashdot I suppose. After flubbing a couple of job interviews because I scared my inquisitors, I had a psychology test which confirmed what I already knew: I'm prone to fits of fancy, bits of balderdash, and countless conspiracies. So I tried on a tin foil hat. Wow, my neighbors harvest organs and my wife mumbles ancient sandskrit curses to herself. Then I asked how much: $3,700. Hey, I'm unemployed. The cheapest tinfoil hat they had were $1,200 each.

              I'm actually not unemployed. I work for an insurance company. Not only that, I work for a non-profit insurance company. They operate in four states as Blue Cross and Blue Shield (BCBS) plans. I've been on the host and home side which means that I have priced claims per contract with the rendering physicians (Host) and I have paid claims based on the contract that an employer has drawn up with the insurance company for their employees (Home).

              Often enough lab tests (80000 cpt codes) are reduced fairly significantly in what we call in network pricing. A provider who is in network signs a contract accepting our pricing structure and in return is promoted as a BCBS provider which provides them with more patients. I've processed many a hearing aid and they do not get a significant reduction. Because of this there are exclusions that limit you to one hearing aid every three years.

              I'm not sure what you're requirements are but http://www.hearaidstore.com/ [hearaidstore.com] appears to have cheaper models.

            • by Sycraft-fu (314770) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @09:57PM (#31468864)

              I know there's this myth that Canada has this wonderful healthcare system where any and everything you need is given to you for free but it just isn't the case. In the case of Canada (since that's the nation I visit all the time and have a dual citizenship with) the stuff that is both free and good is general preventative care and critical care. Your normal doctors visits and such are no cost and pretty timely. Also, should you get in an accident, they'll save your life and all that for no charge.

              The rest? Well different story. Eyeglasses for example, are simply not covered. Canadian insurance doesn't pay for them, (at least not in BC, could vary slightly per Provence). So it is all an out of pocket thing. But, without evil insurance companies it is much cheaper right? Wrong. Way more expensive, nearly double in some cases. Mom is planning on coming to my optician next time she's down to get her glasses because it costs so much less.

              So no, sorry, just hopping over to another country doesn't magically fix everything. Canada's plan is different than the US's not necessarily better. It is better in some areas, but not in others. Quality of life type things, it is generally not better at.

      • Re:Medical... (Score:4, Insightful)

        by rolfwind (528248) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @03:44PM (#31465932)

        Which is kind of insane thinking about it, a hearing aid is different from a heart stint with magnitudes order different levels of risk.

      • Re:Medical... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by ogminlo (941711) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @03:51PM (#31466004)

        It is a medical device which means that it is subject to insane levels of litigation. Mostly you are probably paying for insurance.

        It is a medical device which means that it is subject to insane markups. Mostly they are probably paid for by insurance, so there is little attention paid to cost by consumers.

        There, I fixed that for you.

        • Re:Medical... (Score:5, Insightful)

          by HiThere (15173) <charleshixsn@NOSPAM.earthlink.net> on Saturday March 13, 2010 @04:18PM (#31466254)

          Mostly they are probably paid for by insurance, so there is little attention paid to cost by consumers.

          In the case of hearing aids this isn't all that true. The people who most commonly need hearing aids are older, and likely to be retired. Many of then are NOT covered by insurance. But if you're powerful, or were sufficiently powerful, you ARE likely to have a health insurance that covers it. So there's no push to correct this among the people who have the power to cause it to be corrected.

        • Re:Medical... (Score:5, Informative)

          by timonak (800869) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @04:34PM (#31466400) Homepage Journal
          Sadly, your wrong. I work for a medical device manufacturer. The two big things that drive the cost of a device up are the FDA and lawyers. The amount of documentation we have to produce for the FDA is mind-numbing. We sent a hold box of paper when we submitted out 510k. I can't make a single change in the code base without having a signed-off requirement. I can't fix a defect without having the defect entered as a bug, and then tracing that bug back to a requirement. All because of the FDA. Some of this is good, and a good part of GMP, but a lot of it is overkill.
          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by flanders123 (871781)
            I am guessing your company creates Class II or Class III medical devices. A hearing instrument is Class I, and thus has far less stringent FDA requirements.
            • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

              by timonak (800869)
              Kind of, not really. We are in a really weird position. Our device is a kiosk with metal brackets for hanging other devices on. At the root of it, we are a class I, but because we talk to class II and III (12-lead ECG) and because we shuttle data around, we are a class II. Although there is the risk the FDA could come back and say we are a class III given that we talk to a class III.

              The project is a lot of fun in spite of the FDA :) http://afhcan.org/cart.aspx [afhcan.org]
          • I can't fix a defect without having the defect entered as a bug, and then tracing that bug back to a requirement.

            Mozilla has the same policy for code checked into its Mercurial server. Every patch is attached to a bug in bugzilla.mozilla.org, and each bug cites a requirement or gets marked INVALID.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by mpe (36238)
        It is a medical device which means that it is subject to insane levels of litigation. Mostly you are probably paying for insurance.

        But that dosn't really explain the $13000 price difference between the 4 and 12 band EQ. The other part of the equation is that a digital device can be mass produced. It's not as if anyone needs to design and build an electronic circuit to fit an audiologist's prescription. Instead the device can be programmed. The only likely custom part is a casing to fit someone's ear.
        • Re:Medical... (Score:5, Informative)

          by Sanat (702) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @05:44PM (#31466946)

          This has always been my wondering too... The hearing aid just contains a tiny amplifier that is mass produced along with a tiny microphone. The only part that is unique is the ear plug part that are form fitted to your uniquely shaped ear so as to stop the escape of sound which can contribute to annoying feedback.

          I lost my hearing during the 60's from the rifles and pistols going off near my ears. So I have learned to cope best I can for nearly my whole adult lifetime with a combination of lip reading and hearing only partially. Compared with many of my brothers and sister who returned greatly scarred or died during their service then i count myself lucky in comparison and try never to complain.

          In my case the loud violent sounds did not kill the nerves, rather it hardened the stapes (stirrup) so it would not transmit the vibrations from the anvil to the choclea so a #40 wire was inserted but it has a great Db loss so I am forced to wear hearing aids when I am out.

          Surprisingly enough, the nerves (cochlea) of mine is more sensitive than most individuals and for me it is like wearing ear plugs all of the time thus reducing the volume of what i hear. The nerves are tested by bone conduction in transmitting the sound on the skull and measuring the point at which the sound can no longer be heard... typically there is a 5 to 10 Db loss from the sound having to penetrate the skull.

          One of my hearing aids went out and I picked it up yesterday from repair and the fee was $325 to replace the amplifier in it. Another form of ripoff during the repair cycle.

          I am mostly retired now and insurance nor social security does not cover these costs. I did like the parent poster and checked the cost of new hearing aids but the price was so high that the repair (with 6 month warranty) was the only reasonable solution.

      • Re:Medical... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by JavaBear (9872) * on Saturday March 13, 2010 @04:27PM (#31466340)

        Also, try to pack all that electronics into such a small package, including feedback cancellation (that really loud whine that older hearing aids were prone to produce) and and it has to be able to run on a single battery for at least a few hours at a time.

        Add doctors fees for fitting, set-up and production of the ear piece which is (supposedly) moulded to fit your ear perfectly.

        Headkase and Gription have good points as well. It all adds up.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by GraZZ (9716)

          Since you typically make microchips one wafer at a time, and the cost to produce a wafer is roughly independent of what's actually on it given a certain production process (ie A masks, B layers, C coatings, etc), your cost per unit goes DOWN for smaller electronics these days.

          As other posters have mentioned, the development costs clearly outweigh the manufacturing costs.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          Yeah, right. And a Jawbone that is retailing for 50$ or so does not have all of that? I mean, really - a Bluetooth headset has more components and more power hungry requirements than the hearing aids and they still are 50$ with 6+ hours of talk time.

          How to convert a Jawbone to a hearing aid? Simple: add a equalizer, switch primary mic input with ambient noise reduction mic input, make it always on, turn off Bluetooth.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Waffle Iron (339739)

        It is a medical device which means that it is subject to insane levels of litigation. Mostly you are probably paying for insurance.

        I highly doubt that they pay $1000 of insurance premium on each hearing aid.

        What's really happening is the context that the product is marketed in. It's a "medical device", so the buyer expects it will be outrageously expensive, just like every other healthcare-related product or service in the USA. The producer charges what the market will bear, and that depends on the psychological state of the buyers.

        Context is important. If you went into a grocery store and saw a six-pack of mass produced beer on sale f

      • Re:Medical... (Score:5, Interesting)

        by fm6 (162816) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @05:11PM (#31466700) Homepage Journal

        "Liability costs!" is the mantra of the medical profession, but it doesn't bear close examination, at least not in this case. There are dozens of medical devices on the market that are not only cheap, but are clearly made without much concern about getting sued. Consider sphygomanometers (love that word!). Most cheap electronic ones are grossly inaccurate — and bad data in this case can literally kill you. (Manual versions are cheap and reasonably accurate, but a pain to use.) Presumably the only legal precaution necessary is a "don't use without medical supervision" label.

        It doesn't even bear out in hearing aids. You can get an analog hearing aid for for as little as $200. People like the digital ones because they don't just amplify, they selectively filter to you get the most useful frequencies. I don't know the physics, but I suspect it's far more advanced than a simple equalizer.

        One big factor is insurance. In America's weird private-but-not-free-market health care system, anything that's covered by health insurance has a price that's totally disconnected from market economics. A list price isn't what most people pay, it's what the health care providers use as a starting point for negotiation with whoever pays the bills. If you're part of a big risk pool, such as insurance provided by big companies for its employees, the provider only pays a fraction of the full price. As your risk pool gets smaller, you lose negotiating leverage, and the discount shrinks. If you're an individual, you have little or no negotiating leverage, and pay full price, or close to it.

        This brings a certain irony to the cries of "socialism!" by those who oppose health care reform. The current system is actually closer to socialized medicine than anything Obama is pushing. Or more precisely, it has the worst disadvantages of a socialist economy: prices set by a bureaucracy, inability to deliver goods and services in a timely manner, and so on. It's why we pay three times per-capita for our health care than the Swiss (not exactly rabid socialists!) for a somewhat inferior product.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by mrboyd (1211932)
          I bought a sennheiser travel headset that filters background noise has an option to enhance voice from background noise and can do bluetooth. It was 150Euros. I'm pretty sure that redesigned without the fancy and the useless extras (bluetooth, blink-blink) it would fit the form factor of an hearing aid and probably isn't technologically very far (in terms of components and dsp used). I can feel a lot of margin in the hearing-aid business.
    • Re:Why? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by NonSenseAgency (1759800) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @03:51PM (#31466000)
      Check out a hunting supply catalog, the same device NOT sold as a medical item cost 90% less....
      • by X0563511 (793323) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @04:24PM (#31466308) Homepage Journal

        A hunter's ear thing won't be tuned to the particular loss, it amplifies everything.

      • by westlake (615356) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @04:25PM (#31466318)

        Check out a hunting supply catalog, the same device NOT sold as a medical item cost 90% less....

        You pay for the exam.

        You pay for the hearing aid.

        But you are also paying for the licensed technician who helps you chose the right hearing aid. Casts the earpiece for a proper fit. Adjusts the settings to properly compensate for your hearing loss.

        Provides follow-up support and service.

        You pay for the record-keeping.

        Should something go disastrously wrong on the job, you just might be asked who installed your hearing aid.

        The prescription hearing aid is a tax deductable medical expense. Topic 502 - Medical and Dental Expenses [irs.gov]

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by westlake (615356)

          The prescription hearing aid is a tax deductable medical expense. Topic 502 - Medical and Dental Expenses

          I should have added that you really ought to be making contact with local clinics, vocational rehabilitation services, Social Security, sheltered work programs and other agencies to see what assistance may be available.

      • Re:Why? (Score:5, Interesting)

        by ethicalcannibal (1632871) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @05:36PM (#31466874)

        Check out a hunting supply catalog, the same device NOT sold as a medical item cost 90% less....

        I worked as a nurse for ten years in the geri-psych field. Even my patients with insurance could not always afford the cost of their hearing aids. When the hunting version came out, we bought a couple dozen of them, as a facility, and gave them out as stop gap measures to our patients. It worked. They could hear, and communicate. It's not perfect. I'm a big supporter of it.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by mcrbids (148650)

      Competition (or the lack thereof) IS a solid bet. But the reasonsfor the lack may be uclear:

      1) Government regulation. It cosst a LOT of moey to get ANY medical device approved for sale. This raises barriers to entry and prevents typically cash-starve startups from entering the marketplace.

      2) Insurance. By insulating the buyer from the purchase, insurance prevents companies from having to compete on price. Sure, they COULD cut costs, but then they'd make less money per item without increasing sale. Do a GIS

    • Re:Why? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Eil (82413) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @04:19PM (#31466258) Homepage Journal

      I was going to go with: "because they're so freaking tiny." For some reason, submitter is assuming that its somehow easy to cram all of the necessary technology into a package the size of your Shift key and still have room for a battery. Add to it the fact that this isn't a mass-market product and also that it's technically a medical device so the price is easily tripled after the development and manufacturing costs are figured in.

  • Size (Score:5, Insightful)

    by quantumplacet (1195335) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @03:34PM (#31465808)

    It's not complicated, hearing aids need to be very small. Neither your 1970's amp nor your netbook will fit in your ear. Making something small and reliable enough for this kind of use is difficult and expensive.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by phoenix321 (734987) *

      My laptop mouse (laser + bluetooth, major brand name) has more processing power than the space shuttle. Retailed for 40 bucks plus shipping. Included is a tiny a Bluetooth transmitter that is 2mm larger than the USB-plug which almost require need a pair of pliers to remove from the USB port, so small is it.

      An 64mb mp3-player / USB-stick device plus earbuds can be had for nothing, so the store doesn't have to pay for its disposal.

      Hearing aids may be smaller and more complicated than an el-cheapo mp3-player,

      • Re:Size (Score:5, Informative)

        by strider5 (15284) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @04:16PM (#31466244) Homepage

        So my mini BTE ears (Rexton Cobalts) are about the size of a pinto bean, feature wireless bluetooth audio, house a battery that lasts for a week at 14 hours per day, is made to withstand being in a moist environment 14 hours per day for about 5 years, has a speaker that can generate crystal clear audio from about 400Hz to about 5kHz, amplified about 90dB (yeah, I am basically stone deaf), and the speaker is about the size of the tip of a pen. It has enough DSP power to dwarf a laptop from 10 years ago.

        Really, someone's surprised that these things cost a lot? Yes, the markup is unbelievable, but these are not your grandfather's hearing aids.

    • Re:Size (Score:5, Funny)

      by Concerned Onlooker (473481) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @04:02PM (#31466100) Homepage Journal

      "Neither your 1970's amp nor your netbook will fit in your ear."

      That's a little presumptuous. Have you actually SEEN his ear?

  • Although the technology itself is not very new the packaging (behind the ear or in ear hearing aids are purpose built devices) is left to a few specialized companies. That in addition to the fact that the market will bear these prices, assuming statistically older people with generally more resources are buying, and you are left with the prices you are running into. I recently had a similar experience with a good friends mother and after 6K for the pair with a fairly heavy hit on the savings account she is

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Like anything in health care most people won't be paying for this directly out of pocket; they can charge whatever they want.

  • $400 Laptop (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ShakaUVM (157947) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @03:37PM (#31465842) Homepage Journal

    Well, if you have software on your $400 laptop that can do the digital to analog / analog to digital just like you say, the solution is clear: hold one laptop up to each ear.

    That's still going to be $800, but that's a lil' cheaper than the $1200 pair you were looking at.

    • by rolfwind (528248) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @03:48PM (#31465972)

      Well, if you have software on your $400 laptop that can do the digital to analog / analog to digital just like you say, the solution is clear: hold one laptop up to each ear.

      That's still going to be $800, but that's a lil' cheaper than the $1200 pair you were looking at.

      That's just silly. Holding them up, really, is that the best you can come up with? It's obvious that they should be suspended as earrings.

    • for the ipad! ;)

  • Use a netbook (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Grab that netbook, setup ASIO for low latency audio in/out. Grab FFDshow, start a directshow graph which takes audio from the mic & sends it to the speaker. Addin FFDSHOW audio filter in between mic and speaker. Adjust the mixer of ffdshow filter, and possible turn on other noise reducders. Place some earbuds into your ears and ffdshow settings for correct noise levels.

    You'll need graph edit for adding filters together. You may also need an external mic boom. And of course you'll have to walk around wit

    • Re:Use a netbook (Score:5, Interesting)

      by sarahbau (692647) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @05:15PM (#31466734)

      There already is an iPhone/iPod app for this. It's called SoundAMP, and is $10. So for $210 you can get an iPod touch and SoundAMP, and have way more features than a normal hearing aid (unless the new ones can play music, surf the web, etc). It even has a playback feature in case you missed what someone said (presumably in the case where you can't ask them to repeat it, such as TV, or an announcement or something).

  • Alternative (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Cowpat (788193) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @03:38PM (#31465848) Journal

    If you're actually deaf, and live in a first world country, get yourself registered deaf and tell potential employers about it before you go to interview.

  • by Darkk (1296127) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @03:38PM (#31465850)

    I too have to wear one and it's ungodly expensive. My argument is the fact I need them to have a normal life and work. So if people can get glasses for fairly low price and it's a item that people need then why can't insurance companies provide coverage too? Reason for that it's very specialized market and expensive.

    Don't get one of those cheapie $49.95 hearing aids from the ads as they do not provide the proper specs to the type of hearing loss you have. In fact it'll make your hearing worse. It'll be like listening to iPod all day long.

    See if they can offer a payment plan.

    Good luck.

  • It's my experience that anything labelled medical, nuclear, or laboratory grade, usually costs several times (2x-5x) more than if it weren't.
  • Voc Rehab (Score:5, Informative)

    by JeffTL (667728) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @03:38PM (#31465854)
    I'd suggest that you contact your state's vocational rehabilitation office, which specializes in equipping people with assistive technology so they can be productive members of society (i.e., get and keep a decent job). My fiancée is deaf, and she got a nice Phonak digital aid, a Naida V if memory serves, from the State of Nebraska last year (she uses a cochlear implant in the other ear and only needed one, but two can be arranged as well).
  • Netbooks aren't DME (Score:5, Informative)

    by TSHTF (953742) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @03:40PM (#31465880) Homepage

    On a recent flight, I heard an older man talk to the woman he was sitting next to about this same issue.

    Hearing aids tend to be classified as DME (durable medical equipment). Medical equipment has a higher support cost than netbooks, and the insurance companies are happy to pay. The cost of entry in the DME market is much higher the netbook market.

    Although there is a huge market for the product, the liabilities involved in selling these products significantly raises the risk, and therefore the price, in such products.

  • by Rocky (56404) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @03:41PM (#31465888)

    Decent ones that your wear all the time are typically molded to the inside of your ear and hand-adjusted. This means a real person has to touch them and they can't be mass-manufactured, similar to dental devices like crowns and such (which are comparable in cost).

    • by rudedog (7339) <dave&rudedog,org> on Saturday March 13, 2010 @03:56PM (#31466042) Homepage

      No. The earmold is purchased separately from the hearing aid and attached via a plastic tube. You can buy earmolds for well under $100, and there is actually a market outside of hearing aids for them, such as high-end stereo headphones and monitor headphones worn by musicians. The earmold is attached to the aid with a $1.00 plastic tube, which you usually change every 3 months or so. The aid is programmed by plugging it into a computer (the interface is usually via the battery door). The aid itself can easily be mass-manufactured, since once size does fit all.

  • uhh (Score:4, Funny)

    by DoofusOfDeath (636671) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @03:41PM (#31465892)

    Why Are Digital Hearing Aids So Expensive?

    What???

  • by rolfwind (528248) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @03:42PM (#31465904)

    But this is why it's important to wear ear protection for such seemingly innocuous tasks such as mowing the lawn (or any loud task, really). So many kids back then and still these days listening to their personal music players via headphones where you can hear the music from across the street. It's just stupid and a few $ of protection today will save you $$$ in the long run.

    I have relatives going deaf with age, watching TV with them is not fun. TV volumes set at a level wear I have to wear ear protection.

    • by Nimey (114278) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @05:07PM (#31466664) Homepage Journal

      It's a just revenge on the fucking idiots with thumpy car stereos, I tell you.

  • by maxfresh (1435479) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @03:44PM (#31465926)
    First, it's a medical device, not a commodity consumer item like a netbook, so its manufacturer must prove both its safety and effectiveness, with independent tests, before it can be licensed for sale by the FDA in the U.S., or the corresponding medical regulatory authority in other countries. That process is time consuming, and expensive. Those costs must be paid for, and are reflected in the price. Second, its technology requires extremely low power circuitry, and a much higher level of miniaturization, than a netbook. These factors too, naturally increase the cost of the device.
  • by Aladrin (926209) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @03:47PM (#31465964)

    When you can fit that $400 laptop in your ear, then you can stop wondering why hearing aids cost so much.

  • by nighty5 (615965) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @03:58PM (#31466060)
    Invest in yourself that money to start hearing. It wil help you get a job easier and may improve your relationship your wife due to clearer comunication although it's not clear if that's a problem :) Back in 1982 I spent about $US5,000 on at the time a top of the line non PC computer for the work I was involved in. To put that into perspective my house which I bought around the time cost about $US28,000.
  • by Vellmont (569020) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @03:58PM (#31466064)

    $3700 doesn't sound so bad for something that improves your quality of life so much. Comparing the price to a laptop is so beyond what's reasonable it's pointless to even discuss why. Let's move beyond that.

    Ultimately it doesn't really matter if you can't afford it. So what are your alternatives? Buy something cheap that's likely to not work as well, or try to find some benevolent entity that will pay for all or part of your hearing aid. Government aid? Private charities? I don't know what's available, but others do. I'd start by dialing 211 (most of the country this will hook you up with United Way volunteers) and see if they can help you.

  • Miniaturization (Score:3, Insightful)

    by nurb432 (527695) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @04:01PM (#31466092) Homepage Journal

    Anyone can squeeze a microphone, an AD/DA converter, a 15 channel DSP driven parametric equalizer and amp into a box the size of a toaster oven. But not many can stick it in your ear, and have it fit properly.

  • by beadfulthings (975812) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @04:02PM (#31466104) Journal

    I think it's because they're medical devices, and the makers charge whatever the traffic will bear. Insurance pays for most people, after all. Ever look at the markup on a pair of plain old eyeglasses? Even with the preparation of lenses with your prescription, it's pretty terrible.

    The suggestion: If you've been diagnosed as functionally deaf by a physician, and if you're in fact unemployed, why not nose around and see if there's a benefit available to you from your state? It's an assistive device, and there may be some sort of loan, grant, or other fundage available to you. That might be especially true if you're not going to be able to locate and keep a paying job without one. Look at vocational rehab stuff.

  • by eclectro (227083) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @04:06PM (#31466136)

    There is the songbird [songbirdhearing.com] brand of hearing aids that are far less than a traditional hearing aid. The disposable (400 hours of use) is $80 USD plus shipping. The permanent one is $280.

    Secondly, I might would consider a pocket type [activeforever.com] hearing amplifier with a traditional earphone. It may save on expensive batteries and be easier on the ear physically.

    The higher cost of hearing aids came from the miniaturization, and the price has stayed high. However, with surface mount components now readily available, I expect that there will be more competition in this space.

    I commend you for taking care of this. I have a family member that refuses to admit to his hearing loss, and it truly can be a miserable experience being around him because he takes offense at things that people did not really say, but that he misheared.

    Also, you are in my thoughts/prayers during this time of unemployment struggle for many of us.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by celtic_hackr (579828)

      Secondly, I might would consider a pocket type [activeforever.com] hearing amplifier with a traditional earphone. It may save on expensive batteries and be easier on the ear physically.

      Brilliant! FYI, I have one of those $3700 hearing aids. I also have a $2000 aid. One in ear, one over ear.
      So your solution is to just stick a small powerful super amp in your ear and rapidly kill whatever hearing function is left. Rather than use an actual modern hearing aid. My father had one of those types of aids when I was growing up. Once my dad let me put to my ear. I could hear the electric meter spinning outside the house 20 feet away!

      Both of my current aids use two techniques. One, they limit the

  • by jimicus (737525) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @04:06PM (#31466140)

    And, I hate to say it but I rather think lots of people are wrong.

    The few who have basically said "because they can get away with it" - congratulations.

    From the tone of your post (mentioning prices in $), I'm assuming you're in the US. Which is a bit of a shame because these people [hearingdirect.com] have just opened up with a view to putting the proverbial cat among the pigeons. Maybe you know someone in the UK who can post a hearing aid on to you?

  • by gillbates (106458) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @04:17PM (#31466248) Homepage Journal

    Chances are your hearing loss is limited to a contiguous range of frequencies. Probably a bell-shaped curve. If such is the case, you could probably design (or get an EE acquaintance to design) a low-cost amplifier with a band-pass filter.

    I'm thinking a single 2907 quad op amp could handle the mic input amplification, bandpass filter, and output gain. Connect it to an LM386 400mW audio amp chip, and you're in business. While I'm not affiliated with them, I have used futurlec [futurlec.com] in the past, and they have everything you'd need to build such a circuit yourself. If you want a custom PCB, you can even use the free eagle software to lay it out, and Futurlec can have it printed (in China) for you. Expect about a six-week turnaround.

  • by Kupfernigk (1190345) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @04:29PM (#31466356)
    I had my first digital hearing aid, a Widex, in around 1997. I still have it, it still works, and at today's prices it cost $3500. My latest, a Resound, is vastly technically superior and cost half as much.

    Any medium size company can obtain an A/D, a D/A and a DSP and glue them together. Now add a microphone 4mm long by 2mm diameter that handles the frequency range 125-8000Hz, a speaker the same size that handles the same range with high power levels, and then run the whole thing off a tiny battery for a week of continuous use.

    What people who compare these things to MP3 players and the like do not understand is this. Deaf people need a much higher in-ear volume than people with normal hearing. Furthermore, they usually suffer from selective hearing loss. This means that certain frequencies have to be output at levels just below that at which damage could occur. The sound quality and volume needed from a hearing aid reproduction chain is very much greater than that for an iPod or similar.

    Nor is that all. It is not just selective amplification. Modern hearing aids can do tricks like identify refrigerator hum or hard drive noise and selectively reduce it so that the user can better distinguish other sounds. I had direct experience of this once in a meeting that took place in a room next to a large running Heidelberg printing press. I could distinguish other speakers because of the noise reduction, but the other participants could not and the meeting was abandoned. By switching between "music" and "speech" modes I could easily hear the difference.

    In fact there is now a lot of competition in the hearing aid market with a number of new entrants, and as volumes increase prices are falling. But they are not easy toys to make. Small size, physical robustness, extremely low power consumption, high output, advanced digital signal processing and relatively low volume production means that $1800 is not really much to pay.

  • by MrFlannel (762587) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @04:34PM (#31466404)

    Most hearing aids don't amplify (well, not as their primary purpose anyway) anymore. Back in the old days, sure, that's what they did (electronic equivalent of an ear horn).

    Modern hearing aids shift frequencies (usually downward, high frequencies have the most energy so you damage the short hairs in your cochlea first) to a frequency range you *can* still hear.

    So if you're thinking about making your own, *please* do the proper research first. It will work better, and you will be less likely to damage your hearing further.

  • by stvangel (638594) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @05:41PM (#31466918)
    The first thing I'll tell you is that fundamentally they're all pretty much the same. In general they're all made with equivalent components and the only real difference is Bells and Whistles. It's the only thing the companies can do to differentiate themselves from other manufacturers. Unless you've got some special type of loss, a basic simple model will probably work just fine compared to something fancy. The biggest choice comes down to size and how self-conscious you are about it. Generally, the smaller they are, the weaker they are and more expensive. You're paying for vanity.

    You can probably forget about insurance covering it. Almost no health insurance will cover them. They're considered non-essential, "cosmetic" devices. My company provides very good health insurance and only once over the past 30 years have they ever covered -any- of my hearing aid purchases. 11 years ago (during the dot.com boom) I actually had a company cover part of one ( $1000 of a $2800 purchase ) but that was an anomaly. If you're lucky they might cover the hearing exam but considering most places give you that free as part of the purchase process it doesn't do much good. I've had a couple insurance companies tell me "no we don't cover them, but we offer these great coupons" which were basically a 25% discount off of something that was marked up 100% to begin with.

    The most important thing I can tell you is to get a Costco, Sam's Club, or other shopping club membership. I have a Costco membership and have bought my last two sets of hearing aids there. They were 1/3 the price that I was charged at regular hearing aid stores. Costco had audiologists that were just as qualified as the regular stores, and sold the same models/manufacturers as the regular stores. As an example, my last "hearing aid store" model cost $2800 in 1999. The three I've bought since then ( the last two a couple of years ago ) cost $890-$1000 each and were far better than the $2800 model.
  • by Snaller (147050) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @05:44PM (#31466944) Journal

    Sorry to break it to you.
    Might be cheaper to move entirely.

    They charge what they can get away with, that's what they can get away with.

  • Union Rules (Score:3, Interesting)

    by GerryHattrick (1037764) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @06:11PM (#31467160)
    Got my mother a mail-order Swiss 'Lynx' from a local supplier (neat kit but no frequency matching - good result for non-cheap but moderate cost). When I tried to order the second the locals had been closed down. My theory is that all the costs of fitting, tuning, replacement, retail storefronts, are piled onto the tiny device. Undercut that, and some Professional Union will see you dead. Time for some 'unbundling', Mr. Regulator, and let's see the true costs of each element of service. This is NOT the usual medical-devices, beware-litigation domain.
  • by Ihlosi (895663) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @06:16PM (#31467196)
    Low power.

    Doing anything as low-power as a hearing aid needs is bloody complex and expensive. Your $400 netbook probably would't run more than a few seconds on the kind of power reserves that a hearing aid has. And your '70s amplifier, well, give me a break. Didn't you need half a power plant to power that thing? It wouldn't even turn on on a hearing aid battery.

    These things contain mostly custom chips designed for a single purpose - that is delivering the computing power necessary for a hearing aid with the least power consumption possible. We're talking microwatts here. Designing such a thing costs a lot, and they're not selling in numbers as huge as netbook hardware, because, well, everyone wants a netbook, but most people sure as hell don't need or want a hearing aid if they still hear just fine.

  • by quux4 (932150) on Saturday March 13, 2010 @06:22PM (#31467216)

    There are a number of things commenters here seem not to know about the hearing aid racket. I have a profound hearing loss and have been wearing hearing aids for most of a decade now, let me fill you in on just a few of the things I have learned.

    For all of you championing some sort of cheap or build it yourself aid - unless you have a very light hearing loss, forget that. I once thought the same thing, and tried a number of them, and found that they're basically crap. Just amplifying all sound that hits the microphone doesn't work well at all. A door slamming or a dish clinking can be VERY PAINFUL if overamplified, even if a person without hearing loss barely notices them. After this consideration, there's the problem of the sounds you want to hear being buried under a bunch of sounds that are present but not bothersome in daily life: cars driving by, computer and HVAC fans running, refrigerators humming, crowd noises, air and hair moving over the microphones, and so on.

    I'm not an audiologist or in any way connected to the industry other than as a customer, but what I've learned over the years from wearing high- and low-end hearing aids (I have one pair that cost almost $7000) is, human hearing is far more complex than most people realize. Most folks out there swim in a sea of sound that they are well attuned to, but like a fish, give little thought to the navigation of. It just works, like magic. When your hearing starts breaking down, though, it's an incredibly hard problem to selectively amplify the sounds you want to hear in the many situations you will encounter throughout the day. In a crowded room you want to 'focus' your ears on the person in front of you; in the kitchen you want to be able to hear several people who may be moving around as they speak yet filter out extraneous noise like the bacon frying in the pan, the refrigerator hum, the fan over the stove, the dishes rattling around. A healthy ear does all this effortlessly; hearing aids are only now getting enough processing power to do it maybe half as well.

    I cannot stress this enough, by the way. NO hearing aid will bring your hearing back to what it was. At their BEST, hearing aids are about as good as a cheap car radio tuning a weak station. If you don't need hearing aids now, protect your hearing, because losing it sucks in about a jillion ways.

    In the US, most insurance plans do NOT cover hearing aids. The VA does, and they are the number one hearing aid dispenser in the country. Costco is #2 and they don't even bother handling insurance claims for the patient - he will have to do the insurance paperwork on his own. (I know; I'm wearing a new $3k pair of Costco aids right now and am lucky to be one of the few in my area with a plan that covers part of the cost.)

    Many if not most states have laws which require the hearing aid dispenser to take back the aids and provide a full refund with no questions asked within 30-60 days of first receiving them. And when that happens, that set of aids can't be re-sold unless (at minimum) they go back to the factory to be completely rebuilt. This creates a number of people who will comparison shop by wearing multiple aids for most of the trial period, then returning them. In their defense, that's about the only way to know if a hearing aid and audiologist/fitter work well for a person. But even so, this creates a lot of wasted time and investment for audiologists and fitters. They have to make up the loss somehow.

    Usually the price of the hearing aids includes months or years of followup visits to the audiologist or fitter. And if you wear hearing aids, you'll need them. Everyone has a different hearing loss and everyone has a different set of situations they need to hear well in. So the audie/fitter will need to make a number of adjustments during the lifetime of your hearing aids. Additionally the aids are subject to a lot of moisture and earwax (your ear canal is actually a pretty disgusting place) so the audie/fitter will have to clean and recondition the aids more often

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