What Do Over-the-Counter Hearing Aids Mean for You?

Earlier this week, on October 19, the FDA issued its long-awaited proposal on Over-the-Counter hearing aids. Over the counter means direct to consumer, without the intervention of an audiologist.

The FDA’s proposal followed four years of discussion about OTC aids, dating from the passage of the bipartisan Over the Counter Hearing Aid Act in August 2017. The FDA had three years to assess comments and proposals from stakeholders. These include consumer groups like The Hearing Loss Association of America and AARP, professional groups like the Academy of Doctors of Audiology (ADA) and and the American Association of Audiology (AAA), among others.

New to hearing loss? An OTC aid might be the answer.

The FDA’s draft guidelines allow for adults 18 and over with “perceived” mild to moderate hearing loss to purchase hearing aids over the counter – online or at retail outlets – without a medical exam or a fitting by a hearing-aid professional. These non-prescription hearing aids will constitute a new class of FDA-approved hearing aids. At this time, no hearing aid fits that category.

What we now think of as FDA-approved hearing aids – the prescription aids made by Phonak, Widex, Starkey, etc. for moderate to profound loss — will continue to require an audiologist or hearing-aid specialist for fitting. The FDA-approved Bose SoundControl Hearing Aid, approved earlier this year for direct-to-consumer sales, is the only hearing aid in its class.

How soon will you see these hearing aids for sale at Walgreens or CVS or Best Buy? Probably in less than a year. There are several steps between this week’s ruling and the box on the shelf of your neighborhood store.

Most readers of my column have fairly severe hearing loss and already have hearing aids or cochlear implants. Are these OTC hearing aids for you? No. But will they benefit you in other ways. I think the answer is a resounding Yes.

A lot more people will be wearing hearing aids. People who have hesitated up till now because they didn’t have access to an audiologist, or didn’t want to spend $5000-$6000 for a pair of hearing aids, or who simply didn’t want to wear hearing aids because of stigma, may find that their formerly “manageable” hearing loss is really not worth it if they can easily purchase a hassle-free lower priced aid. The more people who wear hearing aids, the more normal they become and so stigma begins to drop away.

A lot more people will be wearing aids for another reason as well. Demographics. More and more people are getting older every day, and with increased age generally comes increased hearing loss. Age-related hearing loss often begins as mild or moderate loss, and these OTC hearing aids may just right for those new to hearing aids.

As stigma drops away, so does secrecy. People with OTC hearing aids may realize that even with the aids, they prefer television with captions. If television, why not movies? If movies, why not town hall meetings? And so on. So demand for accessibility will grow. It will no longer be the relatively small group of people with moderate to severe or profound loss who are demanding accommodations.

Here are some things I hope will happen.

Although everyone should have a hearing test before buying any kind of hearing device, the work of audiologists may change. With fewer patients with mild to moderate losts, they may have more time for the kind of training and rehabilitation that people with more severe loss may need. They may lobby to have insurance rules changed to allow reimbursement for training and rehab. Audiologists have a role even in OTC hearing aids. Having your hearing tested is not just to assess the degree of loss, it’s also to rule out potentially serious conditions like an auditory-nerve tumor or easily reversible conditions like ear wax. Perhaps a new model of audiology would allow a simple hearing evaluation for a fee.

Once hearing aids are divided into over-the-counter and prescription categories, insurers – including Medicare – may cover prescription aids, which serve a medical need. Or alternatively, with hearing-aid prices driven down by the competition of OTC aids, insurers may realize it’s wise to cover all hearing aids, which have a clear health benefit. Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock, M.D., was quoted in Hearing Health Technology Matters: “Hearing loss has a profound impact on daily communication, social interaction, and the overall health and quality of life for millions of Americans.”

For more on the FDA’s ruling, read HLAA Executive Director Barbara Kelley’s post on HLAA’s “Hear This” blog.

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For more about living with hearing loss, read my books “Smart Hearing: Strategies, Skills and Resources for Living Better With Hearing Loss” and “Shouting Won’t Help: Why I and 50 Million Other Americans Can’t Hear You.” Both are available as ebook and paperback on Amazon.com.

9 thoughts on “What Do Over-the-Counter Hearing Aids Mean for You?

  1. Katherine,
    You overlooked perhaps the single biggest benefit of OTC: innovation.
    As a tech guy, I’ve observed the evolution of unregulated electronic devices: their innovation rate is orders of magnitude greater than the HA industry, and that’s entirely a result of stifling hurdles.
    Every HA model adjustment requires clinical trials and approval by government officials. And, like all medical devices under FDA scrutiny, there are additional hurdles for overseas manufacturers.
    Innovation generally does not happen in quantum, disruptive bursts. Innovation is gradual. And it occurs as a result if tight feedback loops, which is only possible when there are no obstacles and the time-to-market is measured in weeks or months, rather than years.

    The major innovations will occur (I’m predicting) on the software side. When the market opens up, the hardware will become more or less standardized, much like the smartphone industry. Some players will standout for their bluetooth chips or their receivers or their waterproofing, but the real innovation will happen on the software side, with programmers falling over themselves to provide better signal processing, snazzier and more userfriendly user interfaces and, of course, with AI and machine learning being able to automatically tune and calibrate aids to user’s needs, something an audiologist could, of course never do.
    The audiologist as we know them today will become extinct, relegated to patients with dementia or profound hearing loss.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Berl,

      You are a tech guy, but you are not an audiologist.
      Audiologists are not going to become extinct
      They will be needed for helping people who have severe or profound hearing loss….people like this must have specialized hearing aids that need to be tweaked often …these patients must be followed by a highly trained professional, who spends many years going through graduate school, in order to be able to service the equipment.
      You really can’t speak about the needs of such people, because you are a tech guy…you are not an audiologist. Two different universes…sorry

      Like

    • Donald, the OTC hearing aids will be only for adults 18 years and older, and only for those with mild to moderate hearing loss. For profound loss, if a hearing aid isn’t working for you, you might consider a cochlear implant. These are usually fully covered by insurance.

      Like

  2. Everything you say is true, but there may be additional benefits to those of us with severe to profound losses. The entry into the market of high end audio and tech companies such as Bose and Apple may lead to more research that will improve hearing aid hardware. And the competition may well drive down prices for all. In addition, I think it is likely that the OTC aids will be starter hearing aids for many new users who may graduate to prescription aids as their hearing loss progresses, creating further competition, research and price reductions.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dear Katherine,

    I tried to post this comment, but I was asked to post a wordpress password and the system would not take it…so…here’s what i wrote…i copied and pasted it…could you please post it for me?

    So sorry to bother you, but I spent an hour trying to add/change a password and got nowhere…

    arghhh…

    Thank you kindly, Ronnie

    Like

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