It’s estimated that one out of every five people in Los Angeles suffers from hearing loss. Unfortunately, not everybody with a hearing impairment seeks treatment. One of the biggest barriers to care is the cost of hearing aids. The Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act promises to make hearing aids more affordable and readily available, but isn’t necessarily a good thing for consumers.
The Debate About OTC Hearing Aids
The Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017, sponsored by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), promised to usher in sweeping changes for the hearing industry. Regulations of the law stipulate that OTC hearing aids must:
- Provide reasonable assurances of safety and efficacy
- Establish output limits and labeling requirements
- Describe requirements for the sale of hearing aids in-person, by mail, or online, without a prescription
Following passage of the law, it headed to the Food and Drug Administration for guidelines on how to carry it out. The FDA is expected to issue those guidelines very shortly—possibly as early as January—clearing their sale by August 2020.
Are looser OTC hearing aid regulations good for consumers?
On the surface, this legislation seems like a good thing for consumers. People with hearing loss will no longer have to submit to an examination by an audiologist; instead, they’ll be able to buy their devices directly from a retail store.
There is already a retail category of hearing devices called personal sound amplification products (PSAPs); they cannot legally be marketed as hearing aids yet, but that too will change next year as long as they meet FDA standards. With more widespread availability, people who have been reluctant to visit an audiologist are likely to feel more comfortable walking into a drugstore and picking up a pair of hearing aids on their own.
Are OTC hearing aids as effective as prescription hearing aids?
However, your Los Angeles audiologist believes there are drawbacks to buying hearing aids over-the-counter without a prescription.
For starters, they are only recommended for people with mild to moderate hearing loss.
Without a comprehensive hearing evaluation administered by a professional audiologist, there is no way for an individual to determine the severity of his or her hearing loss.
You might save a few dollars by purchasing from a retailer, but if your hearing loss is severe or profound, an OTC device won’t offer any benefit. You’ll end up wasting your money in the long run.
It’s similar to reading glasses: if your vision is impaired, you’ll need to visit an optometrist, but if you just need help reading fine print, you can pick up a pair from the drugstore.
Are OTC hearing aid factory settings accurate enough?
OTC hearing aids come with factory presets for hearing loss, but these aren’t precise enough for most users.
“A hearing aid that’s fit by a professional is fit to a prescriptive target based on scientific research so that the volume is set to how someone hears at those exact frequencies,” says Cynthia Hogan, PhD, an audiologist and director of the hearing program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. Fine-tuning by a professional is the best way to ensure your hearing aids are programmed to your specific needs.
Patients may accidentally treat curable medical issues
Additionally, hearing loss has many causes, some of which could be medically-related. Only a professional can diagnose a disease or health disorder.
If you don’t treat an underlying condition responsible for your hearing impairment, hearing aids will offer minimal benefit—and you’re putting your long-term health at risk.
If you have hearing loss, schedule an appointment
and discuss OTC hearing aid options with your audiologist
Ultimately, OTC hearing aids should expand hearing aid coverage and increase use, and that’s not a bad thing. But it’s crucial to make an appointment with a Los Angeles audiologist before buying hearing aids from a retail store. That way, you’ll have enough information about your specific condition to be able to make an informed purchasing decision.
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