Sonova ESG Report 2021/22
Serving society is at the core of Sonova’s vision to improve the quality of life for millions of people around the world who suffer from hearing loss. We achieve this by developing and continuously enhancing innovative solutions and making sure that our broad portfolio is accessible and affordable to people in an ever-growing number of locations and at all income levels.
The sections that follow provide an overview of our approach in the ‘Serving society’ pillar of our ESG strategy:
The importance of good hearing and the consequences of hearing loss continue to be underestimated. Unaddressed hearing loss is among the three largest causes of years lived with disability (YLD) around the globe, and yet it remains an “invisible disability” with approximately 1.5 billion people – 20% of the global population – experiencing some degree of hearing loss, according to World Health Organization (WHO) statistics.1 Over 5% of the worldʼs population – 430 million people – experience moderate or higher grades of hearing loss2; nearly 30 million have profound or complete hearing loss in both ears. The number of people with hearing loss continues to rise, due both to the aging of populations and to growing noise pollution in our environment. WHO estimates that by 2050, 2.5 billion people could experience hearing loss, and over 700 million people will require hearing care due to a moderate or higher grade of hearing loss by 20501.
People with untreated hearing loss are often faced with serious consequences. These range from adverse effects on personal relationships to disadvantages at work and social isolation, which may even lead to depression. Especially severe are the consequences for children with untreated hearing loss, as the development of speech and language is fundamentally dependent on the sense of hearing. Untreated hearing loss also is often associated with academic underachievement, which can lead to lower job performance and fewer employment opportunities later in life. In addition to the impact of hearing loss at an individual level, untreated hearing loss puts a heavy cost burden on society. Direct and indirect costs related to unaddressed hearing loss are estimated at USD 980 billion annually, of which more than 50% are borne by low- and middle-income countries in direct health costs, loss of productivity, and societal costs1. Todayʼs hearing solutions offer the opportunity to reduce this burden significantly.
The fundamental need for hearing solutions is further influenced by long-term socioeconomic factors. The number of people on our planet will continue to increase. Although populations in low- and middle-income countries are expected to grow the most, even high-income countries with stable populations will face a growing proportion of elderly citizens, who are likely to experience hearing loss. These developments increase demand for hearing care: a large unmet need remains. According to WHO statistics, approximately 80% of people with moderate or higher grades of hearing loss live in low- and middle-income countries, with the most affected regions being the Western Pacific, South-East Asia, and the Americas1. People in such countries often have little or no access to audiological services, and the hearing care market is still relatively underserved. WHO estimates that total current hearing aid production worldwide would meet only around 3% of the need in low- and middle-income countries3. This situation presents substantial opportunities to increase access to hearing care.
- WHO, “World Report on Hearing” (2021)
- In 2021, the WHO has adapted its grading system on the severity of hearing loss. The threshold for moderate hearing loss is 35dB in the better hearing ear.
- WHO, “Factsheet: deafness and hearing loss” (2020)
Innovative hearing solutions
Broad product portfolio
The hearing care market is highly diverse, requiring a broad range of technologically advanced solutions and versatile customer service channels. Our declared goal is to offer the most innovative hearing solutions and services available to consumers worldwide, continuously improving speech intelligibility, sound resolution and quality, and ease of use. With the acquisition of Sennheiser’s consumer hearing division, we have established a fourth business unit, expanding our product portfolio from hearing instruments to true wireless headsets and speech-enhanced hearables, along with cochlear implants, hearing protection, wireless communication solutions, and audiological care services.
In 2021/22, around 60 new patent applications were filed across the Sonova Group. By the end of March 2022, Sonova owned in total over 2,000 active granted patent and design rights.
As well as improving the audiological quality and ease of operation of our products, Sonova continuously extends the digital solutions that bring together healthcare providers and consumers in real time through all stages of the hearing journey. From online-based histories and customer support to remote adjustment and optimization under real-life conditions, digitally networked solutions offer consumers a higher degree of control and autonomy. Wherever users might be, their audiologist can be by their side online, directly capturing data on the specific audiological situation and providing immediate assistance. Continuous data monitoring and statistical analysis of listening situations allow user-specific fine tuning, as well as more targeted advice.
A key example is the myPhonak app, which gives wearers an enhanced and personalized hearing experience, including remote support, fitting, and control, as well as advanced customization options such as noise reduction and speech focus.
To complement our strong R&D hubs in Switzerland and around the world, we announced in November 2019 the opening of the Sonova Innovation Lab in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, where we explore new digital capabilities in one of the leading consumer app development centers in North America, bringing together experts from our various specialties with people from the mobile industry.
Partnerships and collaborations
At Sonova, we consider interdisciplinary collaboration as the guarantor of progress – and essential for such a complex subject as hearing. A key area of our innovation strategy is therefore establishing and promoting international networks, which pool the expert knowledge of leading research bodies, hospitals, companies, and institutions, and bring it to fruition in new hearing solutions.
Long-term partnership and open exchange are the hallmarks of our collaboration with over fifty top-class universities and centers of excellence and technology. The focus of this interdisciplinary work is to make productive use of all potential for innovation: broadening understanding of auditory perception and cognitive processing, driving forward digital signal processing and miniaturization of electronics, improving material and implantation technologies, and researching the potential of bionics. We work especially closely with the international groups of experts from the Pediatric Advisory Board to develop hearing solutions that counteract hearing loss in early childhood and at the same time include and support the entire family.
Accessibility and affordability
Innovation is not limited to products – it also drives the way we approach the market, both through our wholesale companies and our audiological care network. Operating through many channels multiplies the potential paths to hearing, even in parts of the world where hearing care has been in short supply. Sonova’s Audiological Care business stands as the second largest hearing care provider in the world, with more than 3,600 stores and clinics in 20 markets, employing more than 7,600 people (headcount).
Access in remote areas
One example of Sonovaʼs efforts to increase access to hearing care for people living in rural areas is the TeleAudiology model, pioneered by Triton Hearing, a Sonova Group company in New Zealand. Despite Tritonʼs extensive network of clinics across the country, many New Zealanders still find getting to see an audiologist difficult, especially in communities of indigenous people living in remote areas. Triton fitted out two buses with diagnostic hearing equipment and turned them into mobile hearing clinics. A hearing care professional provides the in-room support, including performing video otoscopy, positioning transducers, and handling hearing aids. Through TeleAudiology, clients are connected with audiologists over a high-definition teleconferencing system. It is possible to provide a full diagnostic assessment, hearing and communication needs assessment, impression taking, hearing aid fitting and verification, purchase, and follow-up services through a synchronous, live connection.
We also develop dedicated products and services for underserved markets. For example, over 1.4 billion people1 around the world speak a Sinitic language such as Mandarin or Cantonese. These are tonal languages, where the basic frequencies communicate the information content of words. To better understand the specific needs of Chinese people with hearing loss, Sonova worked with Chinaʼs largest hospital, the Tongren Hospital in Beijing. The result was a specific prescription formula for the amplification/frequency curve shapes of tonal languages – or, to put it more simply, hearing aids offering significantly better speech clarity for millions of people in Asia.
- Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 25th edition (2022)
Accessible and affordable hearing care is still a challenge for many people in low- and middle-income countries and for underprivileged social groups in high-income regions. We aim for a 50% increase in the number of hearing aids sold in low- and middle-income countries by 2023/24, compared to 2018/19. The global health and economic crisis resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic severely affected the hearing care market and with it our business activities. Our supply of hearing aids to low- and middle-income countries remained flat for the two previous years, but rose significantly in 2021/22. Growth now stands at 44.1% over 2018/19, very close to our 50% target.
Sales growth in low- and middle-income countries
Training and education
Many countries lack trained health personnel, educational facilities, and necessary data to address the needs of those living with hearing problems. These factors, and the lack of hearing care professionals and infrastructure in many markets, can impede efforts to raise the proportion of people receiving hearing care. Building local capacity worldwide and training hearing care professionals to the highest standards is very important to Sonova.
As an example, China faces the challenge of a rapidly growing number of people with hearing loss due to an aging population, which will put more strain on an already under-resourced hearing care system. Sonova is providing technical support to its wholesale customers to help address the significant lack of practical knowledge available for hearing care professionals when it comes to hearing aid fittings. In 2021/22, the Sonova Audiology team provided around 32,000 technical support sessions for its customers. A dedicated center, the Sonova Grand Hearing Institute, also offers advanced audiology and practical knowledge to hearing care professionals of its wholesale customers in China; it features a soundproof room for hearing tests and workstations for fitting hearing aids and a lab for adjusting ear-molds.
Sonovaʼs commitment to provide high-quality training for hearing care professionals applies to both developing and developed markets. The Swiss International Hearing Academy (SIHA), a Sonova Group initiative, runs a pioneering blended learning program in audiology for aspiring hearing care professionals (HCPs). The study program makes training courses viable in emerging economies where opportunities for vocational education are thin on the ground or non-existent. In 2020/21 we set a new target: to train and certify 250 HCPs in low- and middle-income countries through the SIHA 12-month HCP program by 2022/23. In 2021/22, 84 HCPs graduated and became certified. Around 100 additional HCPs are currently enrolled in the program and working towards graduation.
We opened our first training center in Germany in 2019. Located in Dortmund, the Sonova Academy offers comprehensive training and development opportunities at the cutting edge of science and technology in ultra-modern training facilities. The program of in-person and eLearning modules complements Germanyʼs existing training offerings in hearing acoustics: The Sonova Academy cooperates closely with the German Academy for Hearing Acoustics and the German Vocational School for Hearing Acoustics. On an area of 1,800 square meters, participants of all target groups and years are being trained in theory and practice in hearing studios, seminar rooms, and an earmold laboratory. The presence modules on-site are supplemented by eLearning modules. In 2021/22, our teams trained around 2,800 participants in online training courses and around 880 participants in on-site training courses. The participants completed a total of over 26,000 individual training modules.
Hear the World Foundation
Sonovaʼs philanthropic engagement at Group level focuses strongly on increasing access to hearing care for children in low- and middle-income countries. We achieve this primarily by supporting the charitable Hear the World Foundation – initiated by Sonova in 2006 – with funding, expertise, and hearing solutions. The mission of the Foundation is to improve the quality of life of people in need with hearing loss worldwide and to create equal opportunities by giving them access to holistic and sustainable hearing healthcare.
Sonova has set itself the target to increase the number of people benefiting from the Hear the World Foundation’s work by 10% year-over-year. This target has been surpassed in 2021/22: 2,260 hearing aids were fitted in projects supported by the Foundation, compared to 750 devices in the previous year; it is important to note, however, that the previous year’s activities had been strongly affected by COVID-19. In future, the Foundation will track its achievements through a newly established impact management and measurement system, which will monitor key performance indicators for holistic hearing healthcare for children, such as the number and percentages of children screened, diagnosed, and fitted, as well as the type and extent of aftercare. As well as patient treatment, the system will track training of qualified professionals and local capacity building.
In 2021/22, the Foundation supported 16 projects globally. 39,190 hearing screenings were performed on newborns and children and 1,250 children were fitted with hearing aids. In addition to hearing loss prevention, holistic audiological care and caregiver support, the Foundation supported basic and advanced audiological training for a total of 1,630 hearing care professionals and volunteers. Sonova employees conducted around 990 hours of volunteer work for the Foundation. You can find detailed data in the Activity Report that is published annually and is available on the Foundationʼs website; it also provides more information on the Hear the World Foundation’s activities, goals, and impact.
In the 2021/22 financial year, the total monetary value of Sonovaʼs contribution to corporate citizenship and philanthropic activities amounted to around CHF 5.9 million. Broken down by type of activity (see first table below), the vast majority (81%) of the monetary value of all contributions was in the form of community investments: long-term strategic involvement with community partner organizations through the Hear the World Foundation. A total of 18% of the cost of all activities was in the form of charitable donations (mostly to humanitarian organizations supporting Ukrainian refugees), and 1% was for commercial initiatives, e.g. research projects, sponsoring of community organizations, and other initiatives supported by Sonova related to the topic of hearing. Broken down by type of contribution (see second table below), the total of around CHF 5.9 million comprises 52% in-kind contributions (mostly hearing instruments and cochlear implants), 33% direct cash contributions, 14% management costs (e.g. staff salaries and overheads), and 1% time (such as employee volunteering).