Local Doctor Creates Simple, Affordable Hearing Aid

Source: Northwest Indiana Times, “Sound for all”
Published March 17, 2010
By Louisa Murzyn – Times Correspondent

Sound for all

Local doctor creates simple, affordable hearing aid; has sold 1,000 so far.

An Indiana doctor’s new affordable, one-size-fits-most hearing aid could mean those suffering from hearing loss won’t have to ante up big bucks or keep shouting “What?” into the telephone.

“The components of a hearing aid are not any more expensive than an Apple iPhone,” said Sreek Cherukuri, an ear, nose and throat doctor at St. Anthony Memorial Hospital in Michigan City, and a former director of audiology at the Hammond Clinic.

“But there are significant inefficiencies in the entire hearing aid health care industry, and there is enormous markup. A hearing aid can’t do what an iPhone does, and an iPhone only costs $99.”

While prices on electronics have come down over time, the average price of a single hearing unit is $1,900 which is up from $500 in 1984. Today, prices range from $800 to $4,000 for one device, and most people need two.

“All the hearing aids on the market are Mercedes Benz and BMWs when all you need is a Chevy,” he said.

About 80 percent of insurance providers do not cover the cost of hearing aids, and Cherukuri, 37, of Chicago, was determined to find a solution for patients who had hearing loss and couldn’t swing paying $800 for the lowest-cost device.

“As a doctor, the last thing you want to say to someone is, ‘I can’t help you,’ ” he said. “For something as simple as hearing loss, it doesn’t make sense. You feel helpless.”

So Cherukuri developed the Acoustitone hearing aid in 2007 with an investment of about $30,000 in research and legal costs. Two models sell for $89.99 and $149.99. He has sold 1,000 since June both in the United States and internationally.

Even in countries with national health care coverage, people are looking for a device that is more reasonably priced, he said.

The ready-to-wear unit goes behind the ear and doesn’t require a fitting or a professional. It has no extra features requiring special instructions or care. And no blue tooth or connectivity features, Cherukuri quipped. “You can go to the store and by the cheapest radio for $25 or a fancy one for $2,500,” he said. “Ours is a bare-bones functional hearing aid.”

It took time to find the right overseas manufacturer, because the industry isn’t regulated. “They all say they can produce it, but their criteria for satisfaction is lower than mine,” he said. Cherukuri designed the unit to amplify the frequency of the human voice without over-amplifying the bass and treble of background noises such as furnaces and refrigerators.

Hearing aids have about $300 in components, he said. Further, some domestic companies sell units in foreign countries for $200 but don’t market them here. “It’s not a regulation issue — it’s a business decision,” he said.

The market is fragmented and largely untapped for lower-cost aids. More than 34 million Americans have hearing loss, but only 24 percent use hearing aids, he said. The number one reason cited is cost.

Cherukuri said the company should be able sell up to 20,000 units in two years. “That means 26 million have untreated hearing loss — that’s 48 million ears — and I’d like to get 1 percent of that market,” he said. “You can go to the drugstore and get nonprescription glasses. They’re not custom fit to your face and don’t have fancy lenses, but they cost $35. They serve a purpose. That’s our goal — to be the over-the-counter equivalent of reading glasses.”

Company name: MDHearingAid Inc.
Type of business: online retailer
When started: June 2009
Phone: (888) 670.HEAR
Owner: Sreek Cherukuri
Number of employees:  1
E-mail: dr@mdhearingaid.com
Web site: mdhearingaid.com

Cost of a single hearing aid
* Behind the ear, open fit:  $1,850 to $2,700
* Behind the ear, with earmold: $1,200 to $2,700
* Completely in the canal:  $1,365 to $2,860
* In the canal:  $1,300 to $2,750
* In the ear:  $1,200 to $2,700
Source: consumerreports.org

Did you know?

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, the number of people suffering from hearing loss is expected to grow to 40 million by 2025.

Impact on household income

Hearing loss was shown to negatively affect household income on average up to $12,000 per year depending on the degree of hearing loss. However, the use of hearing aids was shown to mitigate the effects of hearing loss by 50 percent. For America’s 24 million hearing impaired who do not use hearing aids, the impact of untreated hearing loss is quantified to be more than $100 billion annually. At a 15 percent tax bracket, the cost to society could be well more than $18 billion due to unrealized taxes.

Source: Better Hearing Institute, August 2005