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Sonova's Phonak digital message comes across loud and clear

By Zhong Nan | China Daily | Updated: 2019-07-29 09:49
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A Phonak employee works at a company's production facility in Zurich, Switzerland. [Photo/Agencies]

High-end hearing aid maker's strategy to benefit 70 million local patients

Phonak, the high-end hearing aid manufacturer, will launch more digital products in China and continue to expand its sales channels in the country's lower-tier markets, said one of its senior executives.

Many opportunities come from China's surging application of various digital technologies and new innovation measures in the services sector, including the medical and healthcare sectors.

So, Phonak, which is part of Switzerland-based Sonova Group, the world's biggest hearing aid maker by sales revenue, is seeking to ride this trend in the hearing healthcare business, said Thomas Lang, its senior vice-president.

"China is playing an increasingly important role due to the sale of hearing solutions via private specialist stores and retail chains, he said, adding the country shows a vast potential in market penetration as an estimated 70 million people in the country suffer from hearing loss, but a mere 5 percent own hearing aids.

It is crucial to maintain the pace of development in less-developed regions such as third-and fourth-tier cities, so that these areas can also benefit from the changes in the already developed parts of China. This would enlarge the economy and maintain sustainability, he said.

Phonak introduced Marvel, a new hearing aid product, in China last year. Marvel offers exceptional speech understanding and reduced listening effort in noise. It has also combined these benefits with ability to stream all audio content seamlessly from iPhone, Android smartphones. It is also compatible with other Bluetooth-enabled devices. Its stereo-quality output can reach both ears.

The hearing aids are rechargeable and empower consumers to benefit from remote real-time support via smartphone apps as well as real-time voice-to-text transcription of phone calls, according to Lang.

With more and more government policies supporting the healthcare sector, and with consumers' disposable incomes increasing, China and India have become Phonak's two fast-growing markets by sales in Asia-Pacific region, Lang said.

"In the hearing healthcare sector, Phonak is keen to work with related governmental organizations and professionals to improve the service level, and gain access to innovative hearing technologies in these areas."

China's fast-growing 5G telecommunication infrastructure can also be a convenient platform for the company to make more breakthroughs in innovation, he said.

For instance, China has already installed technologies such as 3D cameras and WiFi network servers on its latest subway trains in cities like Changchun and Hangzhou. In special zones on such trains, hearing aid equipment can offer assistance to those with hearing difficulties.

In China, the company set up an innovation center in 2015 to strengthen its capacity to meet local customer demand. The system it created for the tonal Mandarin Chinese language has served more Chinese users.

Phonak has also built a partnership with the Beijing Institute of Otolaryngology, focusing on scientific research and training, as well as education, and efforts to improve public awareness of hearing care in China.

Long Mo, deputy director of the China Rehabilitation Research Center for Hearing and Speech Impairment, said only 7.9 percent of Chinese who suffer from medium-level or worse hearing impairments use hearing aids or cochlear implant. One of the reasons behind this reality is "insufficient knowledge of the treatment options available for hearing loss".

The shortage of hearing professionals is another key challenge in China, especially those who have already suffered hearing difficulties in small towns or rural areas, said Long.

To tackle these issues, Lang stressed that the company will deploy more resources and manpower to offer more professional services or experts who can conduct a hearing test and then help consumers with the necessary accessories and usage guidance, as hearing aids are products that need to be backed with long-term care and advice.

In addition to running manufacturing facilities in Switzerland, China and Vietnam, Phonak's parent Sonova has built a presence in over 100 countries and regions across the world. Sonova has a workforce of over 14,000 employees. It generated sales of $2.76 billion in its 2018-2019 financial year and a net profit of $468 million.

The company introduced its third generation hearing aid Lyric in the United States and European markets recently to help alleviate symptoms of tinnitus. It is the only hearing aid on the market designed to be worn 24 hours a day for months at a time, making it a valid choice for a tinnitus management program.

Even though Lyric has not been introduced in the Chinese market yet, Lang said most hearing aids, when used in combination with a tinnitus management program, can provide relief from tinnitus.

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