OTC Hearing Aids Could Give More People the Gift of Hearing - Here's How

Making them available to more people that need them

  • New FDA rules allow over-the-counter hearing aids. 
  • This will make real hearing aids available and affordable for millions of people. 
  • Consumer technology companies can add all kinds of fancy features.
A young adult wearing a hearing aid and working at a laptop computer.

Giselleflissak / Getty Images

Soon, hearing aids will be available without a prescription or an expensive medical consultation. 

Last week, the FDA ruled that hearing aids can be sold over-the-counter (OTC). This will bring hearing improvements to millions who previously could not afford medical-grade hearing aids. Prices should drop, and with a huge market ready to exploit, technology companies will step in and improve the offerings. 

"These devices have great potential to increase access to hearing technology for individuals who felt that traditional hearing aids were financially out of reach or due to poor access to hearing healthcare professionals," Rebecca Lewis, audiologist and audiology director of the Adult and Pediatric Cochlear Implant Program at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica told Lifewire via email. "OTCs may also increase awareness of how important it is to take care of your hearing health." 

Buy Direct

The new final rule results from bipartisan legislation that began in 2017. Until now, it was not possible to buy a set of hearing aids the way you can buy reading glasses or other medical devices. You could—and still can—buy PSAPs (personal amplifiers), but these are simple, dumb devices that make it a little easier to watch TV just by making things louder.

Closeup on two hearing aids against a black background.

Debora Monteiro / Pixabay

In fact, PSAPs can even make hearing loss worse and "aren't recommended to treat actual hearing loss as they could potentially over amplify causing hearing damage," says Lewis. "OTC's however, are a class of hearing instruments approved to help with mild to moderate hearing loss for individuals over 18 years old."

This change has the potential to make a huge difference to millions of people. 

"With millions of Americans with hearing loss, the increased access with less of a cost barrier, will improve the quality of life and bring greater awareness that 90% of hearing loss can be treated through the use of hearing aids," Richard Gans Ph.D. of the American Institute of Balance told Lifewire via email. 

That awareness could really be the most important part. Many people might suffer hearing loss and never do anything about it, perhaps because of the stigma of using medical devices, because they don't even realize it's a possibility, or they do not want to enter into the expensive and protracted medical bureaucracy to fix something that they may perceive as little more than a nuisance. 

OTC hearing aids mean that companies can market directly, and we will see the improvements these devices bring to friends, family, and colleagues. 

Lots of high-tech companies have been poised to jump on this—it will drive costs down and lead to greater adoption.

"It may not be so much the price of the higher technology product itself, but it removes the professional component, the technology they are buying may be more like using AirPods or other consumer-grade electronics. These products will unlikely be a substitute for the prescription caliber technologies," says Gans. 

High Tech

There are other advantages of getting consumer tech companies involved. One is that it should drive prices down, thanks to competition. Another is that there is a higher bar, expectation-wise. AirPods already do noise-cancellation, faux-3D surround sound, and can announce your incoming messages and notifications. 

"Tech-wise, you can set [OTC hearing aids] up in your own home–presumably doing a hearing test with your phone,” hearing aid user and designer Graham Bower told Lifewire via direct message. “You will also have access to all the settings, whereas before, the audiologist locked you out of all but the most basic settings.”

Similar to how Apple’s CarPlay improved the declining state of in-car control panels, OTC hearing aids should foster the kind of innovation we expect in our gadgets. 

An audiologist fitting a child with a hearing aid.

FatCamera / Getty Images

“Lots of high-tech companies have been poised to jump on this—it will drive costs down and lead to greater adoption. This is especially important since hearing aids are not covered by health insurance,” Dr. Barbara Shinn-Cunningham, Director of the Neuroscience Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, told Lifewire via email. 

It’s important to note that OTC hearing aids will not replace audiologist-fitted devices, any more than OTC reading glasses replace proper eye tests. And properly-fitted hearing aids don’t need to be expensive.

“I would like to add that most audiologists offer entry-level hearing aids that may have pricing similar to OTC products. For example, our center has the Hearing Aid Recycling Program (HARP),” says Lewis

But the reality is that a decent set of hearing aids costs $4k and up, and that is out of reach for many people. No matter what tech advances these new rules might bring, affordability and availability might be the most important changes.

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