Despite the fact that an estimated 48 million Americans have some type of hearing loss, the cost and social stigma associated with wearing hearing aids make it a continuing challenge to improve the hearing of people who really need it.

To help hearing care professionals find newer, better and more efficient ways to reach those often reluctant patients, Eden Prairie-based Starkey Hearing Technologies is hosting its 2014 Hearing Innovation Expo in Las Vegas starting this week. The event is expected to draw 3,000 participants. Starkey has hosted the expo since 2012.

"The purpose of the expo is to meet the needs of our customer base, the backbone of which is the small mom-and-pop Main Street business," said Brandon Sawalich, Starkey senior vice president. "It is designed really to inspire our customers to take action in a constantly changing business climate."

The hearing aid industry is dominated by six large makers of the technology. Starkey, a private company based in Minnesota, is one of the six, Sawalich said. It is also the only one that is U.S.-owned and operated, he said. In an industry where most audiologists and hearing aid dealers work with only one or two manufacturers, one goal of the expo is certainly to attract more business to Starkey.

But, Sawalich said, it really is about helping hearing professionals find more innovative ways to convince customers to stop ignoring the increasing silence and come into the store for help. It is estimated that only 10 percent of those suffering hearing loss seek assistance.

"For most people, it is about a seven-year process from recognizing that they might have hearing loss to doing something about it," he said. "Most people don't know where to go get [hearing aids]. They say: 'Oh, my doctor will tell me.' "

The expo will feature presentations covering everything from the latest hearing science innovations to better business practices to improving patient care. It also features a lineup of big-time speakers, including former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. With workshops on using digital media, new media and social media, Sawalich said, the goal is to help small dealers "get off the hamster wheel and create an experience in their market, not just putting an ad in the Yellow Pages and hope the phone rings." Dealers need to brand themselves as the "hearing experts" in their market.

"You want better hearing? Come see me," he said.

'I understand the reluctance'

Barry Matsui, who with his wife, audiologist Giselle Matsui, owns Expert Hearing & Audiology Inc., has been in business since opening their Eden Prairie store in 2005. The expo, he said, helps his business reach out to an increasingly younger patient population — one that is nevertheless hesitant to do something about their hearing loss.

"I understand the reluctance," said Matsui, who wears hearing aids. "Vanity is one reason. People try to find so many ways to cope. And you can blame a lot of other people for things you don't hear."

One challenge is to break down misperceptions, he said. Hearing aids no longer are big, beige and bulky devices that are constantly whistling. Digital and increasingly invisible to the naked eye, the technology now is like a minicomputer in the ear.

The other challenge is to convince patients to spend $1,500 or more of discretionary income on something that really should be considered essential: the chance to hear better and more completely.

"It's always been a tough sell. We're doing a better job today of addressing those concerns," he said. "Starkey helps us better understand how to approach those customers. It really deals with every aspect of the business, demonstrations, difficult fittings, how do we get people in the door? They are very, very good in identifying areas of need."

Matsui's business has grown to three stores after opening shops in Mendota Heights and Maple Grove. Expert Hearing & Audiology is sending several people to the expo this year.

"It energizes us," he said. "It makes us think about our business differently."