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Over-the-Counter Hearing Aids: What You Don’t Know Could Hurt You

As of this writing, the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017 has been recently introduced by a bipartisan committee of US Senators led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass). The bill seeks to establish an over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aid category for adults who “perceive” themselves to have mild-to-moderate hearing loss. In effect, it would allow some hearing aids to be sold directly to consumers like OTC reading glasses – without involvement of a healthcare professional.

On the surface this appears to be a boon to people with hearing loss, who are often deterred from buying the hearing aids they need by the sometimes hefty price tag and lack of insurance coverage. However, if you expect to experience the same results from these offerings as you’d receive from hearing aids sold as FDA-approved medical devices by hearing care professionals, you’re likely to be disappointed.

Real hearing aids don’t just make everything louder

Improving hearing requires more than just making everything sound louder, which is primarily what OTC devices like personal sound amplification products (PSAPs) do. Many people only experience hearing loss at certain frequencies or in particular listening situations like noisy, crowded restaurants. Imagine being in a bar with music blaring, people laughing and shouting all around you, while you try to have a conversation with a friend. How does it help to have your hearing devices make all of those sounds louder at the same time? Compare that to hearing aids that are capable of identifying the speech you want to hear and automatically amplifying only your conversation partner’s voice while pushing interfering music and chatter into the background. Now you can enjoy that conversation with your friend without being overwhelmed by competing sounds.

Convenient and cheap aren’t enough

There’s no denying that being able to pick up an OTC device at your local convenience store would be easier than making an appointment and going to see a hearing care professional at their office. However, once you bring the PSAP home, you’re on your own. If it doesn’t work the way you expect, there’s no one to adjust the settings for you. And what if you have questions, like how to maintain your devices or clean them properly? Is it possible to replace damaged or lost parts, or get them serviced when something goes wrong? Have you considered the irreversible damage that could result from using devices not tailored to your specific hearing needs?

We all know the old adage: you get what you pay for. Yes, OTC devices costing hundreds of dollars instead of thousands seem like the better deal on the surface. But if you have to keep replacing them because they can’t be adjusted to your satisfaction or they break down, that savings quickly vanishes. Since they’re basically “one size fits all” devices, you can expect to go through at least a few sets before you find the ones that actually help you hear effectively.

Conversely, when you get real hearing aids from a qualified hearing care professional, they’re fit specifically to your unique hearing needs and tailored to your physical comfort, amplification and lifestyle preferences. The gold standard of hearing aid fitting, hearing loss treatment and rehabilitation starts with validated tools and systems that only a well-trained and evidence-based hearing care professional will use. They also follow clear recommendations on performing these tasks based on the science of audiology and amplification. Hearing care professionals sell hearing aids loaded with advanced technology that enables you to do things like stream audio directly from your electronic devices, hear clearly in noisy environments while expending less listening effort (in some cases even better than people with normal hearing), and ease the symptoms of tinnitus (ringing in the ears).

Hearing loss can be a sign of underlying health issues

The conversations about OTC versus traditional hearing aids too often overlook the results of numerous studies pointing to hearing loss as an early indicator of more serious health issues. Untreated hearing loss has been linked to the following conditions:

  • Clinical depression
  • Meniere’s disease
  • Diabetes
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Increased likelihood of falls
  • Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease

Only a complete hearing evaluation can determine if a greater threat to your health is causing or contributing to your hearing loss. When you self-diagnose and go over-the-counter for your treatment, underlying diseases are less likely to be caught and addressed in their early stages.

Proper diagnosis is vital

When it comes to moderate-to-severe hearing loss, not only could OTC options be ineffective, they may actually damage your hearing. OTC hearing aids are meant to help people whose hearing loss is classified as mild. However, in most cases, a person whose hearing has diminished over time is the last one to realize it, let alone recognize how bad it really is.

If you put devices in your ears that simply make everything louder, you risk further damaging your hearing due to noise-induced hearing loss. What may have started as mild hearing loss could progress to moderate or severe over time. Also, your primary hearing challenge may be the ability to understand speech, as is the case for many people. General amplification alone cannot improve this condition.

Visit a hearing care professional first

When you get your hearing aids from a hearing care professional, you always have someone you can contact whenever you have questions or concerns. You can have your hearing aids expertly fine-tuned and repaired, often for the life of the devices. Additionally, with advances in telehealth now available to the hearing care community, you can receive personalized assistance with your hearing aids from home. Instead of scheduling in-person visits for minor adjustments or questions, all you need is a free app to reach your hearing care professional to ask questions, access user guides, and learn how to adapt quickly to your new hearing aids.

In conclusion, if you’re holding off on getting hearing aids because you think OTC options will be good enough, please consider making an appointment with a hearing care professional first to at least have a hearing test and discuss all your options. You might find that your hearing loss is beyond what PSAPs can treat. You may also be pleasantly surprised by the broad range of hearing aid prices and payment options many hearing care professionals make available to their patients, enabling you to get the advanced medical devices you really need.

Navid Taghvaei, Au.D. is an Educational Specialist with Signia brand hearing aids. He is responsible for conducting very complex individual and group technical training courses and activities involving new and existing developments in the areas of audiology, products, software, and technology for employees and customers. He demonstrates multi-system products by preparing and conducting clinician training, supports clinical product offerings, and performs in-house clinical trials for the Audiology Department team. He has extensive clinical experience in pediatric and adult hearing instrument and cochlear implant fitting, programming, and rehabilitation. He has served as a practicing Clinical Director of Audiology in multiple multi-disciplinary otolaryngology and audiology clinics in the U.S. and internationally. Navid received his doctorate in Audiology and master’s degree in Hearing Science from the University of Louisville School of Medicine and his bachelor’s degree in Cognitive Psychology from Arizona State University. He has also served as a lecturer and Clinical Preceptor at both universities for audiology and psychology courses.