Lafargue on over-the-counter hearing aids

Ellen Lafargue, audiologist

With over-the-counter hearing aids on the horizon, the hearing technology marketplace is in the midst of significant change. The FDA, in response to new legislation, is rethinking certain restrictions on the sale of hearing aids, a move that would impact both accessibility and price. Here’s what an educated consumer needs to know.

Over-the-counter hearing aids legislation

In December, US Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) introduced the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2016 – legislation designed to increase the accessibility and affordability of hearing aids. Two of the bill’s major components are:

  • Establishment of a new category of over-the-counter hearing aids for people with mild to moderate hearing loss
  • Elimination of the requirement that adults receive a medical evaluation before buying hearing aids

The bill instructs the FDA to designate a new category of “basic” hearing aids. These would be non-surgical, air-conduction hearing aids intended to address bilateral, gradual onset, mild-to moderate age-related hearing loss.

The goal: increase competition and create more affordable amplification options for consumers with mild to moderate hearing loss. The average price of a hearing aid is approximately $2,300, according to a 2015 report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. The availability of lower-cost devices could significantly increase adoption rates since price is currently a key barrier to hearing aid purchase.

Change is already underway. In December, the FDA announced that it will no longer enforce its requirement that adults have a medical evaluation before buying most hearing aids. Additionally, the FDA indicated its intention to pave the way for over-the-counter hearing aids. So a new day of greater hearing aid accessibility is almost here.

Audiologist’s role in this new era

Hearing device counseling

As an audiologist who’s been with the Center for Hearing and Communication (CHC) for over 30 years, I wholeheartedly support greater access to hearing health care. And I encourage the availability of new lower-cost hearing aids which will inspire more people to give amplification a try. Nearly 50 million Americans have a significant hearing loss; yet just 20% of those who could benefit from hearing aids seek treatment. The dangers of untreated hearing loss include social isolation, depression, vulnerability to falls, and cognitive decline. So greater access to hearing aids has the potential to improve quality of life for millions and benefit society as a whole.

I have a concern, however, that while over-the-counter hearing aids are intended to “remove unnecessary and burdensome requirements,” they could also end up eliminating the very necessary advice and counsel of audiologists skilled in assessing the needs of people with hearing loss.

Non-prescription reading glasses are often viewed as a model for an OTC hearing aid marketplace. They’re sold directly to consumers at wallet-friendly prices. But reading glasses simply make the print bigger. That’s really all they do. Amplification for hearing loss involves so much more. Today’s digital hearing aids don’t simply make things louder. In order for hearing technology to work well, it needs to be directional, filter out noise, adjust to different inputs, and adjust to the almost infinite configurations that hearing loss may take, both for loudness and discrimination.

It has been my experience that consumers who purchase hearing aids without the guidance of a qualified audiologist are frequently dissatisfied with the result. The audiology team at CHC works hard with each and every client to ensure he or she is  getting the full benefit from amplification. My fear is that hearing aids sold directly to consumers without the counsel of a professional will end up sitting unused in a drawer. Dissatisfaction, over time, would lead to less participation in good hearing health care rather than more. That would be the opposite outcome any of us would wish for and certainly not the intent of the bill.

Connect to life at CHC

You might be surprised to learn that among CHC’s current technology offerings is a high-quality, low-cost personal sound amplification product (PSAP) from Sound World Solutions. PSAPS are not classified as hearing aids but offer the ability to effectively amplify sound in certain listening situations. In the future, look to CHC to be among the first to offer OTC hearing aids (once they’re approved by the FDA). CHC is committed to offering the widest selection of high-quality hearing instruments available, at all price points and by all the leading manufacturers.

As we move toward the age of over-the-counter hearing aids, I encourage everyone to embrace hearing health care and the benefits of proper treatment. Today’s excellent hearing technology, fitted by CHC’s expert team of audiologists, is producing a satisfaction rate among our clients of more than 90%.

At CHC, we view the fitting of hearing aids as both an art and a science. It requires a comprehensive audiological evaluation as well as an understanding of an individual’s unique hearing and communication needs, given one’s lifestyle, career and leisure demands. Only through the counsel of a licensed audiologist can you be assured that you’re receiving the maximum benefit from your hearing aids.

The audiology team at CHC invites you to contact us for hearing health care of the highest caliber for all ages. Whether you’re taking your first step toward better hearing or seeking greater satisfaction from your current hearing technology, we can help you connect to life – today and always!

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