Hearing loss is one of the least visible health issues, yet it affects a massive 37.5 million Americans. Because of how difficult it is to identify, it’s been largely unaddressed up until recently. And while the issue of hearing loss is finally gaining some attention, it's also generating controversy – enough to divide the hearing healthcare world.
The Over the Counter Hearing Aid Act was announced in 2016, and subsequently passed in 2017. This act enables certain types of hearing aids to be bought from pharmacies and retail stores – such as Best Buy – without a medical evaluation from a qualified hearing specialist. It will theoretically be in full effect by 2020.
This decision was met with mixed feelings from the healthcare world, and remains a hot topic to this day. There are several aspects to this debate, so if you’d like to understand the pros and cons of over the counter (OTC) hearing aids, this article is for you.
What is an OTC hearing aid?
The general idea of an OTC hearing aid is that any person can go to a pharmacy and buy a hearing aid which accommodates their hearing. The shopper can bypass a possibly lengthy and pricey appointment, in favor of a simple 15 minute purchase.
These non-prescription hearing aids are mass-produced, and are theoretically a “one size fits all” fix to any and all hearing aids needs. But the question is: should hearing aids be sold over the counter?
Hearing loss is not as respected as it should be
Thanks to medical advancements brought on by our technological boom, diseases have been cured, viruses have been destroyed, and some disabilities have become inconsequential. However, even with this healthcare genesis, public awareness of hearing loss is lower than it should be.
Around 37.5 million Americans have some form of hearing loss. That is approximately 15% of the country’s population: an astonishing amount of people to be affected by a condition that can lead to depression, dementia, or physical injury.
And yet, for a condition with such grave potential consequences, only around one in five adults who experience hearing loss have addressed it using a hearing aid.
How can such a serious issue go unaddressed?
There are many reasons as to why someone might ignore their hearing loss. The three most common reasons that people ignore their hearing are:
- High cost
- Understandable confusion regarding the process
- The social stigma around hearing aids
There is no debate – hearing aids are expensive. If you’re wondering why they’re so pricey, take a look at our article about hearing aid costs. And despite the risks we explained above, most insurance companies do not cover the costs of hearing aids.
When this cost is coupled with the mistrust and conflicting reports that often surround hearing aids, it’s not hard to see why someone would figure that the whole process isn’t even worth it. “I could spend all this money on a piece of plastic that I don’t even fully understand,” they could say. “I’ll save my money, and just listen a bit harder.”
Is it time for a universal hearing aid?
If you read the article mentioned above, “How Much Do Hearing Aids Really Cost?”, you may be asking yourself: “Why don’t I just skip the expensive hearing specialist, and buy a standard hearing aid from the manufacturer?”
If you’ve searched around with this question in mind, you may have come across “hearing aids” priced in the low triple-figures. Odds are you’ve stumbled across what is known as a “Personal Sound Amplification Product” (PSAP.)
The FDA classifies PSAPs and hearing aids as two different products. PSAPs are intended for non-hearing impaired people to use to help them hear in certain environments, like crowded restaurants or windy parks. PSAPs are not intended to compensate for hearing impairment.
A hearing aid, however, is designed for the purpose of aiding someone with impaired hearing. They are Class 1 Medical Devices, and are more heavily regulated than PSAPs. Nearly all hearing aids in the US are produced by six companies, which helps make tough decisions more simple.
Before 2016, your only options when it came to hearing enhancement were a PSAP or a hearing aid. Since the Over the Counter Hearing Aid Act was passed, however, a third device has entered the fray: the OTC hearing aid.
So are they good or bad?
What’s the risk?
This premise of an over the counter hearing aid immediately falters when you learn how precise and tailored a hearing aid needs to be in order to do its job. As with any study of the human body, audiology is a complex and deep topic. It can take 8 years of study to become an audiologist.
Knowing this, would you trust the average person to know the exact requirements of their hearing aid? Or what if their hearing loss was a symptom of a more serious issue? Sometimes, hearing loss can be a part of a larger problem – such as an acoustic neuroma – and only a trained hearing specialist will be able to diagnose the bigger picture.
On the flipside, hearing loss may be the result of a relatively minor issue. There have been instances where a person buys a PSAP, only to discover that they were in need of a simple ear wax removal. This is why the importance of a consultation before a purchase is emphasized so much – it may just save you money.
Another big concern that hearing specialists have in regard to OTC hearing aids is the act of fitting the hearing aid. Even looking at a drawing of an ear, you can see the complexities and intricate curves that comprise it.
Unless you have an intricate series of mirrors in your bathroom, it’s doubtful that you’ve even had a good look at your own ear. This means you may make mistakes when fitting an OTC hearing aid.
One of the biggest woes of the hearing specialist profession is that many carefully crafted hearing aids end up unused in the back of a drawer, and this is after they’ve been specially fit by a professional. If an OTC hearing aid is uncomfortable due to improper fitting, there may be more abandoned hearing aids than ever before.
What are the perks of OTC hearing aids?
From the tone of this article, you’d be forgiven for thinking OTC hearing aids are the worst things to happen to the field of audiology since AC/DC concerts. However, as is the case with most things, there are some benefits to OTC hearing aids.
Firstly, the lower price point may be beneficial in encouraging people to address their hearing loss sooner. People wait an average of 7 years to address their hearing loss, which may be because they are dismayed by the high price point. If people were able to address their hearing sooner rather than later, the differences in quality of life would be enormous.
Secondly, introducing new players into the hearing game allows for fresh eyes in the industry, which could shake things up and lead to advancements. It could also drive lower prices, as competition would increase.
Finally, more people adopting these OTC hearing aids due to ease of purchase may go some way towards reducing the stigma around hearing aids. Without this perceived stigma, more people may consider hearing aids sooner.
Like most things in life, OTC hearing aids can’t be firmly labeled as strictly good or bad. If you’re asking whether they are good hearing aids, the answer is no. They won’t be properly fitted, and might turn you off proper hearing aids.
But if you’re asking whether they’re good for the hearing aid industry, the answer is most likely yes. They can encourage advancements, help get rid of stigma, and topple monopolies. And if someone buys an OTC hearing aid due to its cheaper price, they may be encouraged to commit to a real hearing aid after experiencing some slight hearing recovery.
OTC hearing aids have a mixed reputation, and are still hotly debated in the hearing healthcare world. Here's a concise summary of their pros and cons:
Pros Cons Cheaper to buy May not fit Faster to buy Might discourage further hearing aid consideration Potentially good for the future of the industry Not tailored by a professional Could encourage people to adopt actual hearing aids sooner Hearing loss might be a symptom of a bigger problem
OTC hearing aids may end up being a great development for the future of hearing aids. They may disturb the monopolistic status quo, lead to advancements in the industry, and perhaps encourage people to take the first step in the journey to recovering their hearing.
How and where do I buy an OTC hearing aid?
If you’re interested in buying an OTC hearing aid or two, you should know that you might be waiting a while. Since the bill is preparing to come into full effect next year (2020), there’s a lot we don’t know about OTC hearing aids.
The typical cost of an OTC hearing aid – and the best OTC hearing aids on the market – are both relatively unknown at the moment, as the governmental regulations are still under works. These regulations are projected to be finalized by August 2020, after which production and sale would commence.
So what’s next?
Like any technological field nowadays, hearing aids represent a rapidly developing industry. More players are entering the game, and hearing loss is finally being addressed as a serious issue.
The Over The Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2016 will be taking full effect over the next couple of years. No one can firmly predict where this will take the audiology industry, but there is no doubt that the impact will be enormous.
While you’re waiting with bated breath to see how the industry changes after the law takes full effect, why not arrange a free consultation with a hearing specialist to see if you could benefit from a hearing aid? If you would like to arrange a free consultation, follow this link to a form that will help you find your nearest hearing specialist.