There is evidence the audiology industry is rife with predatory practices and kick backs yet the Government is considering selling the agency that administer hearing services to some of the most vulnerable.
LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: Free hearing checks are becoming common in suburban shopping centres across Australia, but if you take up the offer, you may be surprised to learn the person testing you probably has no qualifications. They’ll also earn a commission on whatever product they sell you. It’s an unregulated industry and experts warn people are increasingly falling victim to predatory sales practices and misdiagnoses. Elysse Morgan reports.
ELYSSE MORGAN, REPORTER: It’s after-school drama class at Waverley Primary in Sydney’s east and one of the loudest in the group is Tobian Jones.
It’s remarkable because Tobian was born profoundly deaf. He got his first hearing aids at just three months old.
It’s not just hearing aids that allow Tobian to thrive in a normal classroom.
What do you like to do best in class?
TOBIAN JONES, STUDENT: Ah, maths. Yeah and play. And doing the sports and doing music. I love things.
KIM WILLIAMS, SUPPORT TEACHER: We have some excellent technology in place in the classroom. This Dynamic is a remote microphone. It sends the signal straight to Tobian’s hearing aids. This FM is also a remote microphone. He can carry this around the school when he goes off to sport or music. This can go up to each teacher.
ELYSSE MORGAN: It’s expensive technology facilitated by qualified staff and paid for by the Federal Government agency Australian Hearing.
Tobian’s father Alex, who’s also profoundly deaf, understands the value of Australian Hearing. We speak to him through an interpreter.
ALEX JONES, TOBIAN’S FATHER (translator): If he didn’t have those supports, I’m reluctant to say, but I don’t think he’d be happy. He wouldn’t be able to communicate with his friends. And maybe not as confident as he is now.
ELYSSE MORGAN: This could all be in jeopardy if the Federal Government goes ahead with plans to privatise the agency.
ALEX JONES (translator): Why would the Australian Government privatise for something that is working? It’s working.
GIRL (Australian Hearing ad): Before, when we played Chinese whispers, I would always mess up the word and my friends would always blame it on me. But now that I have my hearing aids, I can hear the word on the first go and it’s really cool.
ELYSSE MORGAN: As well as providing subsidised care to children and pensioners, Australian Hearing also competes with the private sector, selling hearing aids to the general population. It’s a lucrative business making $12 million last year and it led the National Commission of Audit to recommend the agency be privatised.
ALEX JONES (translator): That’s the terrifying bit for us, it’s so terrifying. It’s vital for deaf children all around Australia to privatise Australian Hearing that would lead to risk, risk where children aren’t well looked after.
ELYSSE MORGAN: Privatisation will open up all of Australian hearing to competition, but that choice isn’t necessarily a good thing.
BILL VASS, DOCTOR OF AUDIOLOGY: I think that parents are going to be finding it very difficult to find out who they can trust.
ELYSSE MORGAN: Bill Vass is a doctor of audiology. He’s worried that no formal qualifications are needed to work in the industry.
BILL VASS: In the private sector, the regulation is totally absent. Anyone can sell hearing aids or pretend to provide the services to hearing-impaired people.
ELYSSE MORGAN: The major hearing aid manufacturers already own hundreds of clinics throughout Australia. One of these companies is likely to buy Australian Hearing.
MAN (Advertisement): Something this good, however, must cost you an arm and a leg.
MAN II: Not at all. Our cost isn’t much more than a daily cup of coffee.
MAN: A cup of coffee. That is very affordable.
ELYSSE MORGAN: Slick ad campaigns and free hearing tests are used to lure in clients like retiree Marcel Jones, who thought his hearing was going.
MARCEL JONES, RETIREE: So I went in and made an appointment for a free hearing test and the test went for about 15 to 20 minutes. And at the end of the test, I was told, “You’re definitely a candidate for hearing aids.”
ELYSSE MORGAN: Marcel had no idea the clinic was owned by hearing aid manufacturer intent on profit and he didn’t check their qualifications.
MARCEL JONES: She only told me that they range from $2,000 to $10,000. I couldn’t do with anything under the $10,000 for my problem. She was really a trained salesperson. And I got sort of – felt that I couldn’t say no. That was the position.
LOUISE COLLINGRIDGE, INDEPENDENT AUDIOLOGIST: The tricky part for someone entering a clinic that’s owned by a hearing aid manufacturer is that there they may be led to believe that the only solution for them is the hearing aid that they are offered.
ELYSSE MORGAN: There are often big commissions on offer for those selling the hearing aids and high sales targets.
LOUISE COLLINGRIDGE: I certainly myself have worked in a clinic where there was an expectation of a certain amount of turnover in every month. And in spite of being a very experienced audiologist and in spite of valuing codes of ethics and considering myself able to make clinical judgments, I found it very difficult to put that out of my mind for the reason that we’re all – we’re all in the workplace to please our management.
ELYSSE MORGAN: The competition watchdog, the ACCC, is so concerned about misleading and unfair sales practices in audiology, it’s launched an inquiry into the matter.
As Tobian grows, he’ll need new hearing aids and ongoing therapy. He and his family will have to find their own way through an unregulated and profit-driven industry.
BILL VASS: It’s a cowboy industry. It needs to be reined in. And I think the potential harm for people, whether it’s physical or financial, could be substantial and it needs to stop.
LEIGH SALES: Elysse Morgan reporting.
From the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) 7.30 Report, 5 Oct 2015.