So first off, let me apologize for not posting recently. I officially started my PhD program at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. I couldn’t be happier or more excited but I also couldn’t be busier. Let’s agree – I’ll try not to fail you in the future and continue to post regularly; you promise to keep reading! I also want to make a note about a programming change here at the blog. I’m going to have some colleagues start posting on this blog with their thoughts, ideas, studies, commentary, and vision for audiology in general. It’ll be interesting get some new perspectives and learn about new research in the field. On that note, let’s move on to today’s post.
Unbundling. I hear this word all the time in policy literature surrounding audiology. I even use this word often myself. But what do people really mean when they use it in relation to audiology? I suppose to understand this we have to first define what bundling means and, to a lesser extent, why it exists.
In audiology, bundling is the practice of combining the cost of the device (i.e. a hearing aid) and the cost of services surrounding the device. This service package can be large – including, but not limited to, evaluating patients’ needs, making educated recommendations, programming/fine tuning devices, educating patients to use the device properly, and counseling for expectations and use. Moreover, it usually includes anywhere from several years to a lifetime of follow-up appointments which can consist of reprogramming, troubleshooting, and care/maintenance visits. These services can add up to a big time investment. So naturally, unbundling would be the opposite. It is the practice of separating out the cost of the device from the services surrounding it.
At this point, you may be wondering why I’m clarifying this or writing about it at all. I’m sure you’re thinking, “Yes Nick, I understand what bundled pricing is. My cable company has been doing it since the 1990’s.” I get it, it’s a simple concept, but I believe there are several misconceptions about unbundling and, in my opinion, we need to further refine what we truly mean when we use the term. So let’s clarify.
As noted above, we have two models, bundled and unbundled. However, in actuality, there are three models being presented and practiced in the real world. These three models are:
I was at a conference recently and learned, to my surprise, that some equate unbundling to the process of deregulating hearing aids. This is a misinformed interpretation. Unbundling would not do anything of the sort. While unbundling may lead to more direct-to-consumer device purchases before being programmed/managed by audiologists, it would in no way affect the official regulation of devices at the moment.
Naturally, one must ask themselves at this point: is unbundling a good thing? Well, I think so and, moreover, I think there is room for both the true unbundled and quasi-bundled models in the clinic. Let’s explore.
For patients, I believe many will appreciate the transparency of these two models. Some will desire and require more in-depth audiologic services and will likely pursue the quasi-bundled model. However, other patients will simply want some basic counseling and programming and will never return. The true unbundled model would benefit those who don’t need as much support. It would also be idea individuals who are transient or have multiple homes since the bundled model can limit who can service their hearing aids/devices.
For audiologists, I can think of nothing better than unbundling. By removing their services from the cost of the device (and thereby separating their worth from simply the sale of a device), audiologists can charge their true self-worth for the numerous tasks they perform for (essentially) free in the current bundled model. In the bundled model, audiologists are essentially gambling that a given patient will not take up more time than was charged in the service portion of the bundle. However, as many know, this does not always work out. Moreover, I believe the unbundled model would increase the patient-base of audiologists. In the bundled model, the patient either purchases a device or not. But, in the true unbundled model, the audiologist doesn’t care about selling a device as they can provide other services regarding direct-to-consumer devices such as counseling, programming, and more. This would likely result in many visits from patients who would never pursue hearing aids but would buy and try a direct-to-consumer device. It can also help audiologists expand their client base by enabling them to offer consultations and evaluations as standalone service offerings – helping them bring in new patients who may later purchase hearing aids or require additional services in the future.
There is also a multi-level benefit for the field of audiology as a whole. By providing services to this group of people, audiologists could significantly impact the public perception of hearing loss and educate the public regarding their role in hearing healthcare. Moreover, it would have a positive impact on the public’s perception of the field of audiology if we could remove ourselves from the sale of devices as much as possible.
So to sum it up, unbundling truly should refer to the practice of removing the device from the purchase of audiologic services and separating these services into a la carte rates – not deregulation. Secondly, unbundling could benefit the patient, the audiologist, and the field of audiology. Thirdly, I think I learned I could write a second blog post simply on the benefits of unbundling!
Have a great day!
Nicholas S. Reed