Hearing aids available without a prescription should start showing up in stores this month, five years after Congress passed a law requiring the Food and Drug Administration to create a category allowing some to be sold over the counter.
People will be able to choose and purchase some, but not all, types of hearing aids on their own without even getting their hearing evaluated by a professional such as a doctor of audiology.
Personal sound amplification products that aren’t hearing aids already were available, but the FDA now has regulations for ensuring the quality of devices sold over the counter as actual hearing aids.
Over-the counter hearing aids have been a goal of organizations like AARP, which says it will make the aids more affordable and obtainable.
If people buy an OTC device and find it isn’t helping, however, that could discourage them from continuing to seek solutions to cope with hearing loss.
To help navigate this new field, three local doctors of audiology shared their opinions of the change and their advice for people with hearing issues.
They expressed hope that OTC hearing aids will improve access to affordable devices and encourage more people to research how to improve their hearing.
Yet they also have concerns about whether what becomes available over the counter will match up to what hard-of-hearing patients need.
“There will be some individuals that can benefit from over-the-counter hearing aids and there will also be individuals that cannot benefit and will need more assistance,” said Dr. Kevin Barlow, owner of Winter Haven Audiology.
“For certain hearing losses, these OTC aids will not be appropriate,” said Dr. Amanda Hidalgo at Watson Clinic Bella Vista Building.
“My fear is then those patients will believe there isn’t a solution out there for them. I like to tell my patients that there is always a solution.”
On the plus side, she said, “it can be a good introduction to hearing aids for people who are curious about them.”
OTC hearing aids are for mild to moderate hearing loss, not severe, a distinction some patients may not be able to determine on their own.
“I have had patients come in saying they have a little or some hearing loss (but) I put them in the hearing booth and it’s a severe, significant hearing loss,” said Dr. Kayla Wilkins, owner of Aspire Hearing and Balance in Lakeland.
“They haven’t realized what they’ve been missing because it has been slowly progressing.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines mild hearing loss as being able to hear some speech sounds but finding it hard to hear soft sounds. Someone with moderate hearing loss “may hear almost no speech when another person is talking at a normal level.”
The cause of hearing loss for some may be as simple as a serious case of ear wax blockage, which audiologists and other health professionals can treat.
Or there could be other medical complications that need treatment.
One key piece of advice from each audiologist:
Get a hearing test before choosing a hearing aid over the counter.
The exam isn’t that expensive, they said. Insurance plans often cover diagnostic hearing evaluations. Some offices provide free hearing exams.
Barlow said he does “truly embrace the over-the-counter hearing aids” but added that “the hearing aid itself is only part of the solution.”
All urged consumers to educate themselves on hearing aids, which Hidalgo described as “a small, very powerful computer that fits on your ear.”
They help many, but they’re an assistive device rather than a cure.
“Hearing healthcare is not a one size fits all” and the reliability of devices can vary, Hidalgo said.
Wilkins suggests reading reviews, researching different types of hearing aids and making sure there’s a trial period during which it can be returned if the device isn’t working correctly.
Making sounds louder isn’t all people with hearing loss need. They need help understanding what they hear and sorting out competing sounds.
Many people develop a problem with background noise as they age, Wilkins said, and an audiologist can program a prescription device to determine how much reduction of background noise each needs.
Audiologists can work after-the-fact to help people understand their OTC device and measure if it’s improving their hearing the way it should.
Barlow said he expects people will ask audiologists to verify if these devices are maximizing word clarity.
What they won’t be able to do, those interviewed said, is program and adjust OTC hearing aids the way they can with one designed specifically for a patient.
The patient must connect on an online app to self fit it themselves, Wilkins said.
Although each expects OTC devices to change their practices, they foresee some good coming from those changes.
“I hope this will remove some of the stigma around hearing aids and hearing health,” Hidalgo said, adding that she has “already been having more conversations with patients about OTC options.”
If OTC devices make people more aware of hearing loss, Barlow said, it may make it easier to counsel them on how it impacts quality of life and communications.
Audiologists also offer other services, such as hearing aid repair or help with tinnitus and balance. They guide patients through adjusting to enhanced hearing and can help patients preserve the hearing they have.
Wear hearing protection if you’re doing an activity, like lawn mowing or listening to loud music, that causes you to raise your voice to be heard, Hidalgo said.
Some of the higher cost of a prescription hearing aid through an audiologist is a reflection of that professional’s education and expertise.
There’s the cost of research to keep upgrading the technology.
Part of it also stems from a high-tech device going to a small market in a field dominated by a handful of companies.
“I have often said, if every household owned a set of hearing aids, they would cost less than a television,” Barlow said.
Contact Robin Williams Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Is an over-the counter hearing aid right for you?