Paul Surridge, Chairman of BIHIMA, concludes 2019 with tidings of hope and hearing…

The message we get from all sides in our current social, environmental and political climate, is that the future is in jeopardy. Every industry is touched by this sense of uncertainty. Even in our own hearing device manufacturing sector, while the private market has continued its trajectory of steady growth, we have seen significant turbulence in the NHS market as trusts stockpile supplies in preparation for a potential no-deal Brexit. And yet, the resilience, creative imagination and cooperation of our sector’s professionals in the face of this uncertainty is what I want to focus on as we draw an end to 2019 and embark on a new year.

Over the past year, representatives from the eight hearing device manufacturing firms that make up BIHIMA have been interviewed about their vision for the future of hearing technology – we have heard from people such as Thomas Behrens from Oticon predicting the importance of brain health and cognitive processing in the design of hearing care, Lise Henningsen from Widex asserting that hearing tech could one day be at the centre of all healthcare because of its huge potential in biometric monitoring, and Dr Dave Fabry from Starkey imagining a day when hearing devices could replace mobile phones in terms of their functionality! The opportunities seem endless.

These future-gazers are all ambassadors from the world of cutting-edge hearing technology, for whom subjects such as artificial intelligence, big data and bone conduction systems are simply bread and butter. And yet their number one priority, the reason they do what they do, is to improve the hearing experience of the normal people who access their products.

It is this shared vision, for people to hear well throughout their lives, that unites all the BIHIMA members, and it is the reason our organisation has been able to thrive over the past three and half years since our official rebrand and launch. Up to this point, BIHIMA had been an informal gathering of manufacturers who would occasionally meet to facilitate an exchange of data. But it was the same creativity of imagination I have been citing which led all the representatives to put aside competition and the pressure from shareholders, to bring their expertise together for the common good and devote themselves to being a community that advances an agenda for change on behalf of people with hearing loss.

BIHIMA has grown and developed over the years, working in partnership with other professional, trade, regulatory and consumer organisations within the healthcare and charitable sectors, raising awareness with both consumers and policy-makers about hearing impairment and the technology which can change lives. Our work so far has included the launch of a two-day conference (which will run again in 2020), bringing together the industry to learn from experts, and particularly to promote the spirit of collaboration and exchange of ideas that will ensure the progress of our sector.

In a similar vein, our Hearing Loss and Dementia Summit earlier this year, united audiologists, research scientists, and representatives from the media and charity sectors, to share knowledge and develop strategies in concert with one another, rather than working on the same topic in silos.

The same unifying aim is behind many of BIHIMA’s plans for next year, which include funding a major educational initiative with Action on Hearing Loss, in collaboration with the Royal College of General Practitioners, with the principle aim of engaging with frontline healthcare professionals, particularly GPs, training them to better recognise the signs of hearing loss. Another initiative is a summit bringing together members of parallel association, in dentistry, optics, veterinary, private health care, along with representatives from our own sector, to discuss the issues and opportunities facing industry and to discover crossover learnings.

BIHIMA is in the privileged positon of being able to pool our data and of having a bird’s eye view of the industry. Every week I hear stories of how the hearing healthcare sector, working together, is changing individual’s lives and impacting wider society. I continue to be humbled by the contribution of voluntary and charitable sectors, and the exceptional hard work and skills of audiologists. Although underpinning BIHIMA’s work is the firm belief in the transformative power of technology, not only in radically improving hearing experience but also in changing social perceptions and tackling the stigma that persists around wearing hearing instruments, it is at our peril that we lose sight of the people on the frontline of our industry: the healthcare professionals who apply our technology to real people. I thoroughly endorse the recent comments from Professor David Welbourn, when asserted that audiologists, rather than giving in to a sense of marginalisation within medicine, should be confident in their role as protectors of one of the most important things in life: our hearing. Its value cannot be underestimated.

Indeed this confidence and sense of assurance should characterise the whole industry’s approach as we begin a new year. Abraham Lincoln once said that “the most reliable way to predict the future is to create it” – and at BIHIMA it is our conviction that the success of the sector depends on shaping the future agenda, not just being reactive. We already have the security of knowing that, especially with an ageing population, there will always be a steady stream of people seeking help with hearing. But surely that’s not good enough – the bar must be higher. As Professor Welbourn also said, it is a scandal that we are content with fewer than 50% of people with hearing loss getting the help they need, that we are arguing about whether it’s 35% or 35.1% who get treatment, forgetting the other 65%.

Turning our attention to the 65% will involve a willingness to look at the future from new angles, to think outside our normal stables. It will involve ambition and continued commitment to working in a joined-up way.

  • It is with this spirit of optimism and hope that I wish the hearing industry a joyful Christmas and a very happy new year.

     

  • This article appeared in Audio Infos Magazine – December 2019: