What You Need to Know about Over-the-Counter Hearing Aids
In 2017, a federal law was passed to make it possible for people with hearing loss to buy hearing aids without consulting an audiologist or a licensed hearing aid dispenser. The Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act, as it is called, has tasked the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) with creating and regulating this new category of hearing aids by 2020.
Currently in the United States, only one to three out of 10 adults over 50 with hearing loss currently use hearing aids. Proposed to address the problem of limited access to hearing aids among the nation’s hearing loss population, the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act aims to ease the financial and perceptual barriers that prevent many individuals from seeking such devices.
Some forgo hearing aids because getting screened and fitted for a device is inconvenient or cost prohibitive; others resist getting a device they perceive as being used only by the elderly. Supporters of the legislation argue that since over-the-counter (OTC) devices are expected to be much less expensive and can be purchased easily and discreetly, more people in need of hearing aids are likely to get them. Eventually, they add, greater marketplace competition may result in lower prices for hearing aids of all types.
While the new category of hearing aid is likely to benefit many people with hearing loss, there are a number of factors you need to consider before heading out for an OTC device.
The effectiveness and release date of OTC hearing aids are unclear. The capabilities of the new models—currently in development by audio companies such as Bose—are as yet unknown. And even after the deadline of 2020, the models will have to undergo extensive laboratory and consumer testing, as well as regulation, before they will be released into the marketplace. If you are already experiencing hearing loss, waiting too long to find a device that meets your needs can delay you getting the treatment that you need.
Hearing aids do not solve all hearing problems. If you’re having trouble hearing, hearing aids are not always the solution. A variety of issues, including wax buildup or other obstructions, stenosis (narrowing of the ear canal), injury to the tympanic membrane, and abnormal growths in the middle ear can all affect hearing. Without an examination by a medical professional, you won’t know for certain whether a device will improve your hearing or if a different intervention is needed.
OTC hearing aids won’t work for people with severe hearing loss. The devices will be marketed to individuals with self-perceived mild to moderate hearing loss. As with other health problems, it is unlikely that individuals can objectively assess the level of their own hearing ability. Furthermore, hearing loss is often progressive, so those who purchase OTC devices may have to visit an audiologist later anyway. Although hearing aids purchased through an audiologist can be expensive, the purchase typically includes several years of audiologist care. Since hearing loss has been linked to depression and even dementia, having a lasting relationship with an audiologist can be extremely important.
The programming matters more than the device. While hearing aids themselves can vary significantly, the greatest variability in their effectiveness is in how they are programmed and adjusted. People purchasing OTC hearing aids will have to program the devices themselves, without the years of knowledge and experience possessed by an audiologist. The factory presets of OTC devices will not be sufficient for all customers, and the wrong settings may cause further hearing loss.
OTC hearing aids may be confused with PSAPs. Personal sound amplification products (PSAPs) are already available over the counter, but these are not hearing aids. PSAPs are used for activities such as birdwatching, where it can be useful to amplify sound that is not within the hearing range of people with normal hearing. When both OTC hearing aids and PSAPs are available, it will be important to distinguish which product you are buying, as PSAPs can be damaging to your hearing if used improperly.
The Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017 seeks to remove very real barriers to hearing loss treatment, and OTC devices will likely benefit many. But as with any OTC medical purchase, consumer education is of paramount importance. When considering buying an OTC hearing aid, make sure it’s the right option for you.