In an effort to make hearing aids more accessible and cost-effective for people with self-perceived mild to moderate hearing loss, the FDA has created a new category for hearing devices called over-the-counter hearing aids (OTC HAs). This new class of products, also known as personal sound amplification devices (PSAPs), are available without a prescription or visit to any medical professional.

We know that many people refuse to seek help for their hearing loss, causing detrimental effects to their quality of life. Making hearing aids an OTC product may seem like a good solution due to the appeal of increased availability and more opportunity for marketing hearing loss and potential for cost savings. While those features can have a positive effect on getting more people to address their hearing loss, non-prescription hearing aids may have the opposite effect.

If used incorrectly, which is a high risk with OTC hearing aids, the potential to fail at improving hearing loss or improving it enough to satisfy the consumer exists. Consequently, this failure may prevent buyers from seeking hearing loss help from a professional. Consumers may now be empowered, but is that power to choose really beneficial to their health and hearing?

OTC Hearings Aids Are Not A Catch All Solution

Hearing loss is often progressive

Although your hearing loss may begin mildly, it is not likely to stay that way. Remember that idea of self-perception of mild-to-moderate hearing loss? There is very little scientific evidence showing people are able to accurately calculate the degree of hearing loss they have. So, although you may think you have mild hearing loss, it may be a greater loss and putting you at risk for choosing the improper PSAP device and not gaining the appropriate benefit.

OTC hearing aids are not for everyone

Although OTC hearing aids may be an appropriate solution for people with mild hearing loss, visiting with a hearing care professional will still be the best option for most people. Hearing does not work like eyesight. Eyeglasses have a unique prescription and help you see clearly immediately upon wearing them. Hearing loss is not that straightforward. People sometimes wait years to seek help for hearing loss simply because they don’t know what they can’t hear. During this time, hearing slowly declines. Multiple trips to the hearing instrument specialist or audiologist are needed for reassessment and fine tuning of  hearing aids as hearing needs change.

Hearing Loss Needs To Be Treated

Many people look at hearing aids as a product they buy and put in their ear. This line of thinking switches people’s brains into consumer mode instead of patients with hearing loss. This consumer-vision leads to shopping around and being highly influenced by cost. This is great when purchasing your next refrigerator or television or stereo. But what if your future hearing is at stake?

Simply put, you need a hearing professional. When selecting and fitting their own OTC devices, consumers have not had a hearing exam by a professional. Hearing Instrument Specialists are licensed specialists qualified to test hearing, fit and dispense hearing aids. Audiologists are doctorate-level professionals who can perform the same functions as a Hearing Instrument Specialist (HIS) but have a deeper understanding and education to support their assessment. Both hearing professionals are able to provide a range of services including:

  • Providing a baseline of hearing to help track future hearing loss
  • Diagnosing the type and degree of hearing loss
  • Determining a person’s candidacy for hearing aids
  • Identifying the right hearing aid device
  • Optimizing the hearing aid fit
  • Programming the hearing aids correctly
  • Offering counsel on expectations and answering questions
  • Discussing other assistive listening devices
  • Providing follow-up visits to maintain optimal device performance (usually included with the cost of the hearing aids)
  • Tracking hearing loss and adjusting treatment plans accordingly

Though hearing aid companies offer options that could be equally appropriate for many people, it’s these professional areas of expertise that make all the difference when it comes to your hearing. If you are not a dentist and have tooth decay, do you perform your own dental work? Can you perform your own eye exams and order lenses when you need vision correction? Why would your sense of hearing be treated differently? You can’t toss a treatment plan into your cart along with your pack of 100 pair of tube socks, case of printer paper and gallon of milk.

Quality Of Life Versus Cost: Keep It Stress-Free

OTC hearing aids are being portrayed as equivalent to prescription hearing aids but at a more affordable price point. Unfortunately, this only addresses the money aspect of assistive hearing devices. Today’s state-of-the-art hearing aid technology accounts for so much more than just sound amplification. Prescription hearing aids account for your entire lifestyle. Just some of the emerging and already available technology includes:

  • Bluetooth wireless connectivity: hands-free, streaming directly to your devices, apps, multiple device pairing, improved signal, remote control capability (see the StreamLine Mic for an example)
  • Improved speech quality
  • Nearly undetectable size
  • Wind noise reduction
  • Synchrony: hearing aids working together instead of separately
  • Rechargeable hearing aids: full day of wear, then recharge and dry while you sleep
  • Biometrics health tracking
  • An endless array of apps (myHearing App is a great example)
  • Virtual visits with your audiologist

Prescription hearing aids are not only more convenient than OTC devices, they are also low-maintenance. These advanced devices are made with technology to help your day-to-day quality of life, not just your hearing. Your hearing aids also include access to a hearing aid professional that can answer questions at any time, adjust fit, program and monitor your hearing aid.

You don’t have to tailor your life to your hearing aids. They are tailored for you, made to fade into the background of your life while bringing the best of your life forward. It’s a matter of quality of life over cost; playing with your hearing health shouldn’t be a bargain.

What If The Cost Is The Only Bar To Getting Hearing Aids?

In a recent study by Indiana University, OTC hearing aids were found to help older adults with hearing loss. However, the patients who received professional help with fit and instruction had a better outcome. The study compared outcomes among three groups of patients:

  • A group that received a hearing aid that included the services of an audiologist
  • A group that received an over-the-counter hearing aid (unknowingly to them, they received the same high-end digital pair as the first group, but without a fitting)
  • A control group that received a professional fitting for a placebo hearing aid that had no amplification

The results showed the OTC group to be less satisfied with their devices and less likely to purchase them after the study concluded. A little over half the OTC participants were likely to purchase the hearing aids after the trial versus 81% in the audiologist’s group. However, satisfaction increased greatly for participants in the OTC group who opted to see an audiologist for a four week follow-up period after the main trial. More of them also chose to purchase their hearing aids after the four weeks even though they initially said they would not purchase them.

The health community would rather see people with mild hearing loss using OTC devices than nothing at all, although this study helps show they are not a replacement for the expertise of an audiologist.

When you first see those OTC hearing aids and wonder if they’re worth it, don’t let your wallet, or self-perception, determine your hearing needs. You should consider the other factors that apply when getting hearing aids. Consulting with a health care professional would be a great first step when thinking about how to better your quality of life through hearing solutions.

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