Conversations with the IHS: An Interview with Kathleen Mennillo

The Academy of Doctors of Audiology (ADA) is committed to transparency and collaboration. ADA has enjoyed a productive and open dialogue with allied organizations including the International Hearing Society (IHS). In the spirit of this collaboration, ADA and IHS have partnered to deliver an interview in each issue of their respective publications for 2014. We are pleased to round out the year with an interview with IHS Executive Director Kathleen Mennillo, MBA. We also encourage members to read IHS’ next issue of the Hearing Professional to read an interview with ADA’s Executive Director, Stephanie Czuhajewski, CAE.

AP: Can you provide us with a brief professional bio, and how you came to be Executive Director at IHS?

KM: I graduated from the University of Michigan with three majors: business management, communications and political science. From there, I entered the workforce while also going back to school to pursue my MBA with a specialty in e-commerce. During that time, I began my career in association management at the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME); a large association with approximately 35,000 members. After leading the new product development team for SME for a few years, a dear friend of mine saw the open position in education development at IHS and thought it was right up my alley. She sent me the information, I applied for the position, was hired as education manager, and within 11 months became the executive director. AP: What changes have taken place both at IHS and in the profession since you have served as ED?

KM: First and foremost we got on a plane and began meeting with many members and customers to hear what their issues and concerns were with IHS. We did this for an entire year. After learning much from our constituents, I came up with a strategic plan for the Society which was fully supported by the Board of Governors and at that time, we launched the “New” IHS; a Society focused on creating direct value for our members.

Simultaneously, I made several internal changes at IHS, following the idea from author Jim Collins in his book “Good to Great,” I started putting the right people in the right seats on the bus, and building a team of highly educated and well experienced professionals to serve our members.

And finally, one of the most critical changes was elevating the professional standards for hearing aid specialists. Since I became executive director, we have created and launched a new licensing exam following psychometrician models to demonstrate candidate competency. This new exam is offered at testing centers across North America and certainly has increased the level of difficulty for the minimum qualified candidate.

AP: Please tell us about IHS membership: How many members? And, what are the primary benefits that members receive from their IHS membership?

KM: IHS has a strong network of over 4,000 members with approximately 46 chapters extending our reach to more than 12,000 hearing healthcare professionals. We are proud to say our members are predominately hearing aid specialists, and that we also have doctors of audiology and medical doctors within our membership. In fact, our incoming president is an audiologist – and a member of ADA too. We fully believe, and support, the idea that a well-rounded professional approach to hearing care is truly a customer centric approach. I believe one of the strongest, intangible, benefits IHS members receive is the complete support of a professional staff of 13 individuals working on their behalf. This includes: development of the highest-level of continuing educational offerings; two full-time, DC-based government affairs professionals working on state and federal issues to protect the profession; and a team working to keep relevant and current information and resources at their fingertips so they can focus on being successful hearing aid specialists and business owners. AP: What have you found that IHS members most appreciate about their association?

KM: I truly believe that our members most appreciate that IHS listens to them wholeheartedly and that we are nimble enough to change direction as needed to support them. IHS has raised the bar of excellence to the highest level possible and we will not accept less from ourselves or others!

AP: What do you perceive are the most pressing issues concerning your members in their daily practices?

KM: The most pressing issue today is the continuous struggle to maintain the small, independent business. As the landscape of hearing healthcare changes, this will continue to be a struggle for our members and we plan to continue offering resources and support to help them come out on top. Next would be the workforce shortage that we have all heard about. IHS has some important and strategic projects which will be revealed shortly to support this need. And finally, the commoditization of hearing aids through discounted sales modes and other avenues which take us away from the hearing healthcare profession and drive the industry to competing in a sales market instead of a patient-centric approach.

AP: Do you view the emergence of such entities as Internet sales, tele-health practices, insurance companies, and big box retailers into hearing healthcare over the past few years as key indicators of a shortage of hearing healthcare professionals in the marketplace?

KM: Yes, and hearing from leaders that preceded me, they dealt with the same issues. Fortunately, we have learned a lot from the history and have become a Society, and a profession, that can embrace change and adapt appropriately so the customer is always receiving the best care and service possible.

AP: Can you speak to the value of audiologists uniting with hearing aid specialists to address these issues?

KM: It’s imperative to moving the industry forward. Following the research that we have all seen by Barry Freeman, PhD, there are simply not enough professionals combined to service the volume of patients that currently need help, let alone the baby boomers who are just on the cusp of needing our service.

There are some competencies that are shared between hearing aid specialists and audiologists, and definitely some that the go beyond the scope of practice of a hearing aid specialists and we recognize and respect that there is crossover and differences. If we come together, and work together, in the end the customer will win and that will keep them coming back and allow us to help more customers. We are so much stronger together than we are apart. AP: Fit to Serve: Can you describe the Fit to Serve initiative?

KM: Our goal is simple; to assist the professional hearing healthcare providers and the VA to service our veterans with hearing healthcare needs. We have all heard from Dr. Lucille Beck, Chief Consultant, Rehabilitation and Prosthetic Services at Department of Veterans Affairs, that hearing issues are the top claim from veterans seeking service at the VA and that despite the hard working, very skilled providers within the VA, there are still not enough professionals to service the current, and future veterans. Let me assure you, there are no smoke and mirrors, the goal is simple; we want the VA to recognize hearing aid specialists and to assign service levels that they can provide. It’s not about financial gain. It is about helping our brothers and sisters even if it’s a loss leader to the professional. Sadly, many of our members are veterans themselves and although they are more than competent to help their fellow brothers and sisters, they are told by the VA that they are not Fit to Serve.

AP: IHS and ADA have been collaborating on different projects recently, such as these joint articles in both of our magazines. How has that collaboration been received, overall, by IHS members?

KM: It’s overwhelmingly fantastic. Our members are excited to see the open-minded attitudes and forward thinking leadership coming from their colleagues at the ADA. I can say that since the articles have started, more and more members have shared with me their personal stories about working with audiologists and the overwhelming success that comes from this type of collaboration. I’ve heard many stories of a hearing aid specialist being a mentor to someone in their family who then went on to become an audiologist and they continue to work together as a team. Overall, our members are happy to see the mutual respect being formalized because honestly so many of our members are already working like that in their offices. AP: How does IHS and ADA working together benefit their respective members?

KM: Coming from a different industry, I can say I am very pleased to see this coming along because it was something I observed very quickly was lacking. This much-needed collaboration helps demonstrate the unique contribution that members of both organizations lend to the hearing healthcare team and also identifies the commonalities in this fairly small industry. Like we always say…together we can achieve so much more.

AP: Kathleen, thank you for taking the time today to share IHS and your perspectives with us.    
Kathleen Mennillo, MBA is the Executive Director of the International Hearing Society, based in Livonia, Michigan. Ms. Mennillo holds a BA from the University of Michigan and an MBA from Davenport University.