I wish I had a nickel for every time a patient came to my office with a mailer they received promising a vacation, a kitchen appliance, or even a Thanksgiving turkey as a gift for trying a hearing aid. Mailers like these are nothing new. Such inducements have become common practice in condo time shares and car dealerships, but they have no place in health care.
These mailers are sent by hearing aid dispensers or audiologists who purchase a list of specific demographic targets in order to lure prospective patients to their offices with promises of gifts and discounts. These practices expect that, in order to receive their “gifts”, the patients will book an appointment and splurge for hearing aids. The mailers will often arrive in an 8 x 10” envelope marked “urgent” with the appearance of an authorized document, with emboldened warnings such as “time sensitive information” and “for recipient only.” Others state that the recipient has been “selected to be part of a special test market.” These mailers are often outsourced and arrive from a third party marketing company to present the appearance that it is not the practice’s own marketing. Is it legal, yes. Is it ethical, who knows. Is it tasteful, definitely NO!
While there is nothing wrong with advertising a clinic – after all, how else will people be made aware of the practice – I have a particular distaste for letters and publicity designed to mislead people. What is particularly troubling is that most of those who are targeted for these mailers are over the age of 65. A December 2012 article published on NPR’s website entitled Why It’s Easier To Scam The Elderly reported findings from psychologist Shelley Taylor at UCLA. Her study suggested that older adults have decreased activity in the area of the brain that detects risk and danger, making them more susceptible to respond to unsavory types of marketing. The article also reports a finding from AARP that the average age of fraud victims is 69, and states that this age bracket is “most inclined to believe those too-good-to-be true promises.” A more recent article, entitled Psychological Vulnerable Older Adults Are More Susceptible to Fraud, published by Science Daily in April 2013, suggests that psychologically vulnerable individuals, characterized by depression and ”low level of social needs fulfillment”, were most likely to become victims of fraud. Because hearing loss is so pronounced in this age demographic, and because untreated hearing loss leads to social isolation and depression, the inevitable obvious conclusion is that the target audience for the hearing aid gimmicks are those who are most psychologically vulnerable.
To our patients who are disgusted by these mailers, I want to say “Thank You” for reading between the lines. To our colleagues who remain committed to avoid this path, it’s wonderful to see so many taking the high road to preserve the caliber of our profession. To our professional organizations that have not yet sanctioned these tactics for being unethical, hopefully soon you will reach the same conclusion that I have and re-evaluate your ethics standards and guidelines.
Most importantly, to recipients of these mailings, please remember for yourself and for your loved ones – especially the elderly who may not be able to read the subtle cues or fine print – that there really isn’t a special prize, special discount or special test audience, as advertised. These are simply devices to get people intrigued. The gifts for valentines chocolates aren’t REALLY chocolate, rather a $15 online certificate where you have to spend a certain amount to activate the coupon. If a practice promises $500 off a price of a hearing aid, more often than not, the price is first INCREASED $500 so the spender can feel good about using their coupon. Or, my personal favorite is the 50% off the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, which of course is artificially doubled by the practice so that it can be cut in half. Read carefully, be smart, and advise those you care about to do the same.
When it comes to your hearing, which is an integral component of your overall health, choose a hearing care professional who is patient and caring and provides counseling and aural rehabilitation to facilitate the adjustment to hearing instruments. Hearing aids are a process, not a product, and the relationship you build with your audiologist should be meaningful and built on a foundation of trust. Certainly professionals who use tricks to get you to their door could be initiating a relationship that prays on your vulnerabilities. Don’t let yourself or your loved ones fall victim to marketing predators. Isn’t it better to find honest professionals and buy your own Thanksgiving turkey?
Stefanie Wolf, Au.D.
Doctor of Audiology
Audiology of Nassau County
165 North Village Avenue
Rockville Centre, NY 11570
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