Audiology is presenting as a new way for existing optometry practices to elevate their service. This trend hasn’t been lost on the decision makers at George & Matilda Eyecare, which has now completed its first audiology integration in Sydney.
In seven short years, George & Matilda Eyecare (G&M) has built an expansive network alongside high-powered Australian optometrists. Much of its success comes down to a desire to innovate not only in technology, but its operating model. The latest – and most intriguing – way it is doing this is the addition of a new allied health stream.
Globally, audiology has emerged as an ideal adjunct sensory service in optometry practices. Able to operate out of the same premises and serve the same patient base, the model can be executed at scale, and is well-established in overseas markets like the UK. The concept has been gaining traction in Australia too where the number of people with hearing impairment is expected to double to 7.8 million people by 2060.
Supporting over 100 Australian communities, G&M has seized this opportunity to elevate the patient experience by becoming one of Australia’s newest audiology providers, seeking to offer a service beyond industry norms.
The rollout began in May 2023 via a pilot at George & Matilda Eyecare for Antonello Palmisani Optometrist, the company’s Leichhardt practice in Sydney, coinciding with a relocation of the practice and new fit out.
G&M’s foray into audiology is being underpinned by two key appointments with Mr Ant Hudson, G&M’s new general manager of audiology, and Ms Roshni Joseph, clinical audiologist at Leichhardt, who are responsible for devising the company’s audiology blueprint.
In Hudson, G&M has someone with rare, high-level experience across optometry and audiology. Prior to coming on board, he was the national sales and operations director for Audika, responsible for leading the clinical teams across more than 300 hearing care clinics in Australia (Audika is part of the Demant Group, one of the largest global manufacturers within the hearing care industry). In eyecare, he also spent six years with Luxottica as vice president of optical, leading the OPSM and Laubman & Pank optical teams across Australia and New Zealand.
He says integrating audiology into an optometry network makes sense, being able to leverage the pre-existing premises, front-of-house staff, and patient base. In terms of goodwill and trust, much of the legwork has already been done.
“Our G&M practices proudly have long-standing and strong relationships with our patients, having provided outstanding care to them for decades. Our patients trust our optometrists and dispensing teams and have high levels of confidence in the optical services which we provide,” he says.
“Our practices now have an opportunity to provide more holistic care to our patients, by adding audiology services. Providing both optical and audiology services will increase our leadership standing within our local communities as we continue to place the health and wellbeing of our patients first and foremost.”
Starting with a guiding characteristic of “patient first” care at G&M and a blank canvass, Hudson has been excited by the opportunity to re-imagine how the future of Australian audiology may appear.
“We will have several key differences compared to what else is offered in the industry. A great example of this will be the introduction of cerumen management (ear wax removal) as an additional service available in our practice, rather than sending patients away to their GPs to have excessive ear wax removed. This is not a standard service within the industry,” he explains.
“Being proudly Australian, we are an alternative to the corporates from abroad. We are locally owned, managed and operated, and taking insights from our ‘patient first’ experience through optical digital imaging, we will show every patient what is happening inside their ears, through the use of video otoscopy in every practice. This also currently isn’t a standard practice within the industry.”
Given that audiology will be added to an existing optical business model, Hudson says G&M can offer highly competitive pricing by industry standards.
“Our ambition is to help patients get the best possible solutions for their hearing. In addition to very competitive hearing aid prices, if patients choose to purchase rechargeable hearing aids from us, we will provide them with a free charger for their hearing aids. Most of the industry charge a fee of up to $500 for a charger,” he says.
“We are that confident in our pricing that we will guarantee a price match on any identical hearing aids supplied from another physical practice or clinic.”
While the Leichhardt practice will be the template for a comprehensive audiology service at other G&M practices in future, the rollout may not look the same across the board.
In Leichhardt for example, G&M has built a fully soundproof testing room. By soundproofing the entire room, this has removed the need for patients to be placed inside “the old claustrophobic sound booth” during their hearing assessments, Hudson says.
“Ideally, we are looking to provide the full audiology service within an existing practice, however in some instances, we may not have sufficient space to provide a ‘patient first’ experience. In these instances, we will be looking to complete initial hearing screenings with our patients and then if required refer our patients to our closet practice, which provides the full audiology services,” he says.
The audiology opportunity
Globally, Hudson says it’s accepted that audiology and optometry can co-exist, and thrive. And it’s a change worth embracing for other reasons beyond providing a greater level of care.
“At some point in time, not providing both services may become a lack of competitive advantage. If we don’t offer audiology, patients may go down the road to a competitor for their audiology needs and we may end up also losing their optical business,” he says.
“Audiology can also provide an incremental revenue steam to optical practices without adding significant additional costs.”
When it comes to the most valued senses, Hudson says sight and hearing are often considered the two most important.
In recent decades, he points to the diminishing stigma associated with wearing prescription glasses, which are now often perceived as a fashion statement. The same isn’t true for hearing aids yet, but devices are becoming smaller and more discreet.
“So we have a wonderful opportunity to help those people who have not taken action to address a hearing loss,” he says.
“While older patients in their 80s or 90s may still have the stigma that a hearing aid means ‘I am old’, younger patients in their 50s and 60s are far more open to hearing aid use. To them, it is just another in-ear technology gadget. Meanwhile, younger people wear devices in their ears all the time, it is an essential part of how they access phone calls, music and podcasts. To these people, a hearing device is simply a natural way to enhance their listening experience.”
Taking the leap
Adding an entirely new health offering means G&M will need to mobilise its HR department to shoulder tap audiologists to work in its practices. The first to join was Ms Roshni Joseph, who Hudson knew from Audika. Wanting to pop the “clinical bubble” of her previous role, she was equally nervous and excited to join the new venture.
With a background in behavioural therapy before moving into audiology 6.5 years ago, she has relished the chance to help shape a new audiology program.
“Being able to develop procedures and protocols so that we can deliver a high level of care – and an easier way of accessing it privately – is one of the biggest reasons I was keen to take on the role,” she says. “At this early stage, there’s many hats being worn – whether that’s marketing, legal and other aspects in addition to my clinical role.”
For Joseph, it’s also been exciting to see G&M’s commitment to provide a comprehensive audiology service, as indicated through its investment in soundproof testing rooms (instead of the booth), as well as other technology.
“A big difference is the use of video otoscopy, as opposed to a handheld otoscope that only the audiologist can view through. This enables us to view inside a patient’s ear and show them exactly what’s going on,” she says.
“Along with that, we’ve got the latest technology in audiometry for the actual hearing assessments, and tympanometry that allows us to check the middle part of the ear. We’ve got suctioning tools here too, removing the need for someone to be sent to the doctor to have their wax issues addressed with a syringe. In future, we are also looking at a scanner to take impressions of people’s ears when they need hearing aids, which will speed up that process.”
A chance to innovate
For optometrist Mr Antonello Palmisani, who has served the Leichhardt community for 23 years, the opportunity to add audiology to the practice came as he sought to leave the practice’s shopping centre location, in search of a new high street premises.
The move into audiology made sense to him, with there being many parallels between optometry and audiology, including the vestibular ocular reflex which shares the cranial nerve (and keeps people steady and balanced even though the eyes and head are moving), as well as the fact that vision and hearing are the two most important senses for survival.
The aging population is also important to both sectors.
“My practice already has a significant following, so if people in that age group come in, or someone has any concerns, I can now provide this extra service. But more importantly, it’s the type of service; the audiology care here is unbelievable, so that was important for me, to maintain a high standard of care.”
A major part of G&M’s value proposition for independents who join its network has been its ability to provide comprehensive back-end office support, as well as access to technology and operational data insights – all while protecting the optometrist’s clinical freedom. Palmisani says this was a wise strategic decision by G&M, and the addition of audiology is another shrewd move.
“Providing two essential services under the one roof makes sense. People won’t perhaps visit an audiology practice randomly on the street, but people do to browse eyewear, so having this opportunity to explore any concerns they may have with their hearing in a familiar, safe environment works well.”
Palmisani says there are no plans to impose the audiology service on optical patients when they visit. He prefers word-of-mouth marketing and many patients have become aware of the service purely because it is written on the shopfront.
While it’s early days, Hudson says G&M is delighted with the way patients are responding to the additional care within the Leichhardt practice.
“We are very fortunate to be working with some fantastic supply partners and continue to seek out best practices from across the globe, with the ambition to continue to raise the bar in ‘patient first’ care within the Australian audiology industry,” he says.
“Audiology services are now in the optical space and they are here to stay. We have an opportunity to embrace the change and provide an even greater level of care to our patients.”