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What to Make of “Over the Counter” Hearing Aids

If you follow the hearing aid industry at all, you’ve probably heard that some changes are coming down the pike. In 2020, hearing devices that have previously been regulated will be available over-the-counter. The rule is meant to help patients with “mild to moderate” hearing loss, and the idea is that if these devices offer some easy-to-use settings, the patient can dial that in himself or herself. These devices are slated to be a lot cheaper than the hearing aids currently produced by manufacturers, and the hope of policymakers is that this is going the bring down the cost of hearing care and make hearing devices more widely available to those who need them.

As an audiologist, I’ve dedicated my career to helping patients hear better. I certainly agree with anything that can help to bring down the cost of the devices themselves and make them more widely available to those who need them. But the over-the-counter nature of these devices misrepresents the complexity of the underlying condition these devices are supposed to treat. After all, we don’t expect people to choose their own distance seeing prescription glasses–there’s a reason for this–it could put them, and others around them, in jeopardy if they can’t see correctly. The same is true of hearing—not being able to hear means you may not be able to step out of the way of danger or come to the assistance of someone else who might need help. In addition, these over the counter devices may not be powerful enough to provide the necessary amplification needed. Consumers could be wasting money on a device that is not as beneficial as a properly fitted device by a professional.

The AARP released a study last year that found that subjects who got a hearing device over the counter were significantly less satisfied with the hearing aids and less likely to purchase them after the trial than those who got the same device along with the services of a qualified audiologist. About 55 percent of the over-the-counter participants said they were likely to purchase their hearing aids after the trial vs. 81 percent for the audiologist group.

Interestingly, satisfaction significantly increased for patients in the OTC group who opted to continue with an audiologist for a four-week follow-up period after the main trial. More of them also opted to purchase their hearing aids after this added time after initially saying they would not.

The lesson? Even though these more affordable devices are on the way, patients should take the “over-the-counter” designation with a grain of salt. A lot of the time, a device with tons of settings can make us think that we’ve got enough flexibility to make the device work, but what is in fact needed is the knowledge and years of experience of an audiologist who can dial in the right settings to actually make the device work well for the patient. After all, less money spent on a hearing device that doesn’t work great and that as a result you don’t end up using can hardly be called a cost savings. Hearing loss is not treated with a device. Proper counseling and aural rehabilitation will provide much more success in a patient’s hearing journey.

Need help navigating the confusing field of hearing aids and over-the-counter hearing devices? We are here to help! Contact us to discuss your needs and your budget, and we’ll be able to recommend a hearing device that will work for you!

About Dr. Marie Vetter-Toalson Au.D.

Dr. Marie Vetter-Toalson Au.D. is the owner of Chicago Hearing Services and a Doctor of Audiology dedicated to empowering her patients and the public with greater knowledge and education around hearing health.