The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved over-the-counter hearing aids, much like reading glasses, that you can pick up at your local Walmart or Walgreens sometime in the near future. What do over-the-counter hearing aids (OTCs) mean for the general public? How will you know which one is best for you? Dr. Mary Chatelain from Pinnacle Hearing recently went on AFMC TV to discuss this news and what it means for people.
The hearing aids that most of us are familiar with are prescription hearing aids: the kinds that are prescribed by an audiologist or a hearing instrument specialist. Those hearing aids are custom fit to your ears. “Now, the FDA released guidelines on over-the-counter hearing aids, which are supposed to be released in mid-October,” Dr. Chatelain says. “These will be the ones you can purchase online or at a store without seeing a doctor and without getting a hearing evaluation, similar to [reading glasses] you can pick up at Walmart.”
The topic of hearing loss has been a taboo subject over the past few years. “People don’t want to talk about their hearing loss or about wearing a hearing aid because it’s perceived that that’s what happens when you get old. Well, no. That’s what happens when you have hearing loss,” Dr. Chatelain explains. “I am excited about how this buzz of OTCs has opened the door for so many conversations in my field about hearing loss.” With OTC hearing aids being approved by the FDA, many people may feel more comfortable opening up that door for a conversation with their doctor about their hearing loss. Once people understand how crucial their hearing is and how much amplification can help them, they will want to treat their hearing loss.
Because OTC guidelines are recently being written and all of this new technology is being available so quickly, Dr. Chatelain warns that there are some concerns to be wary of: “OTCs are not recommended for certain people — children, anyone under the age of 18, anyone with active drainage out of their ears, anyone with tinnitus (ringing in the ears), patients with dizziness, patients with asymmetrical hearing losses and patients who have cognitive issues. All of these patients should steer clear of OTCs,” Dr. Chatelain says.
You also risk purchasing OTCs without knowing if they are your best option. OTCs are only recommended for those who have mild to moderate hearing loss. There is no verification process to know if this is accurate for the type of hearing loss you are experiencing. “These devices are also not going to be able to be custom fit to your ears like prescription hearing aids are. These devices will be a one-size-fits-all type of device,” Dr. Chatelain adds. There is also no follow-up care provided, and nobody is there to guide you through the process of using the hearing aids.
There is also a risk of damaging your ears down the road if you buy an OTC hearing aid that does not fit right or is not the right kind of hearing aid for your ear. There is also some concern that when OTC hearing aids do not work for certain people, those people think that all hearing aids, in general, do not work for them. In reality, maybe the one-size-fits-all OTC device did not work for them, but a tailor-made, custom-fit, prescription hearing aid would work for them after all.
“That is why I’m excited about the buzz,” Dr. Chatelain says. “I think this will help our profession educate the consumer more.” According to Dr. Chatelain, people wait around seven years after they first experience hearing loss to consult their doctor. "I hope OTCs will be a stepping-stone for providers to start educating consumers. Hopefully, this will reduce the time people wait to treat their hearing loss. I hope we can at least cut that time in half,” Dr. Chatelain says. Out of those people under 70 who would benefit from wearing a hearing aid, only about 13% of people have them. For individuals over 70, that percentage is a little higher, but it is still only 30%. “We’re not treating as many people as we should,” Dr. Chatelain adds. “The OTCs will provide an avenue where patients have more access to hearing aids.” Hearing aids will now be more affordable for patients. That being said, they are not going to be suitable for everybody.
The programming and overall fit for prescriptive hearing devices are tailored to the patient. There are ways that doctors can custom fit the hearing aid to your ear so that it fits securely, and you don’t have to worry about it falling out. “I think that,” Dr. Chatelain says. “I think there is a place for the OTC devices, but in general, the prescription hearing aid will still be the go-to for most of our patients.” When you get a prescription device, they are often more expensive because this is not just a device. “This is a computer you are wearing on your ear,” Dr. Chatelain explains. “Whenever we fit a patient, we do real ear measurements.” Doctors also ensure that a hearing aid works for each patient’s hearing loss. They can also make certain adjustments to the frequencies for each patient. “Most hearing aids that we fit will come with a three- or four-year warranty,” Dr. Chatelain adds. Currently, there is no regulation on warranties for OTCs.
Personalized support is another benefit to prescription hearing aids versus over-the-counter hearing aids. Patients with prescription hearing aids can schedule follow-up appointments and cleaning checks where doctors can walk the patient through the process of wearing a hearing aid.
Some OTCs have been available via mail order for the past few years. Dr. Chatelain says that these mail-order OTCs are often ineffective. “It’s so disheartening, but 90% of the patients I see that have tried [mail order hearing aids] said that they just don’t work. They get them in the mail, but they’re unsure how to use them and don’t have anyone to help guide them through the process.”
One of the reasons prescription hearing aids are so expensive is that you're getting a bundled service. You're getting the hearing aid, but you're getting all of these other follow-up services and the three-year warranty. If you run into an issue with the device, then you are going to have someone there who can guide you through and help you instead of mailing the hearing aid back to someone in another country or a few states away who doesn’t have a personal connection with you and your hearing issues.
At the end of the day, if you are experiencing hearing loss, you should make an appointment with an audiologist and have your hearing evaluated by a professional. Typically insurance will cover these appointments. If not, the out-of-pocket cost will not be expensive just for receiving a professional opinion on what kind of hearing aid is recommended for you. That professional is going to be able to tell you whether you should take advantage of these OTC devices or whether you would benefit more from a prescription hearing aid.