As people mask up to prevent the spread of COVID-19, 15 percent of adults in the United States who report troubled hearing may face a unique challenge: not being able to read lips through masks. Additionally, masks can muffle sounds for someone with hearing loss, according to the Washington state chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America.
Rick Giles, a hearing aid specialist at Hearing by Design in Vancouver, isn’t sure that this conundrum is responsible, but his business is seeing profits during the pandemic while many other businesses aren’t.
“It certainly makes a lot of sense that people would be looking for better correction during the pandemic if they can’t read lips through masks,” Giles said.
Employees and customers at his shop wear masks and run into the problem themselves.
“I do know just anecdotally in my own office when people don’t have hearing aids in, it’s much more difficult for them to understand my directions and conversation than when they do not have their hearing aids in.”
Deemed essential by Gov. Jay Inslee, Hearing by Design never shut down. Giles said the business is thriving for two reasons.
“People came to see us because they knew we were open. And second, the people who needed their hearing aid replaced in that time period, they started coming to us,” he said. “Sales actually went up; the number of units and dollar volume increased.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows fields related to hearing as growing faster than most occupations in general.
“More and more people are losing their hearing,” Giles said. “The total in the U.S. who wear hearing aids is about 37 percent (of those with hearing loss), so there’s a huge untapped market.”
Giles, a Fort Vancouver High School graduate, has worked in the hearing aid business since the 1980s. He fell into it by chance when he needed a job after graduating from Clark College with a degree in business. Now, he works with patients of all types one to two days a week. On a recent weekday, he helped Ridgefield Mayor Don Stose, who visits Hearing by Design three to four times per year for cleaning and adjustments.
As he approaches retirement, Giles, 62, recently sold Hearing by Design to his employee, Elizabeth Miller.
The Columbian caught up with Giles to learn more about his work.
Tell me about what you do.
The average person will wait five to seven years after those around them realize that they need to do something about their hearing before they will make their first appointment. It’s critical when we get them in for the first time that we have a friend or loved one attend the initial appointment with them. Before we do anything, we’ll sit down and talk about the difficulties they have. For example, with Mayor Don Stose, he was elected mayor of Ridgefield and noticed that he would go to city council meetings and have difficulty hearing people on the council and the citizens addressing him, and he realized he had a hearing loss. We did a hearing evaluation. Over time, we gradually increase the response of the device to the point we consider their prescriptive levels. We pair it with his cellphone so when it rings it goes directly into the hearing aids. The app on his phone allows him to control the volume of the devices and activate noise filters.
Do you or anyone in your family have hearing loss?
My wife has hearing aids. She has mild-to-moderate hearing loss. I have high-frequency loss in one ear. I will wear one occasionally when I’m in a group of people. It helps me pick out voices so it’s not all mumbled and jumbled together.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows this line of work as growing pretty rapidly. Why?
What’s becoming more acceptable now is the physical appearance of the devices and the background noise cancellation. The vast majority of people with hearing aids, you can look at them and not know that they are wearing them because of their size and functionality.
Why weren’t they accepted before?
There was a stigma around their size and function. They were pretty limited. They were basically a straight amplifier that you’d wear on your ear. Today it could be compared to any super computer in a very, very small size.
Hearing aids can be expensive. Why?
Don’t get me wrong, there are hearing aids to fit all price categories. As technology improves, the cost of research and developing of new products on the manufacturers’ side have increased exponentially. The company we buy most of our hearing aids from, what they spend on research and development each year is double or tripling. I think last year they spent almost $500 million on research and development, and when you look at the number of hearing aids selling nationwide, it doesn’t pencil out to keep the prices a level they would have been 10 to 15 years ago.
What are some of the biggest hurdles of your job?
I think the single biggest hurdle is still people realizing that they are having difficulty with their hearing. By the time someone comes to see us, the only person who isn’t aware they have the hearing loss is themselves. The sooner someone seeks treatment for a medical condition the better the outcome will be.