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Congress passes OTC hearing aid bill

What you need to know

Lafargue comments on JAMA hearing aid view

Ellen Lafargue, AuD, CCC-A

The over-the-counter hearing aid bill that passed in the Senate recently is making quite a stir in audiological, hearing aid industry, and consumer circles. If signed into law, it will clear the way for the FDA to designate a new category of “basic” hearing aids that will be available to people with hearing loss without the intervention of an audiologist or other hearing health professional.

OTC hearing aids have the potential to increase competition and create more affordable amplification options for consumers with milder degrees of 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. Since price is a barrier to trial, the availability of lower-cost OTC devices might have a positive impact on hearing aid adoption rates.

Many audiologists feel that this will be the end of hearing health care as we know it. I do share certain reservations, but mostly I do 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. Consider these facts:

  1. Currently, 48 million Americans have hearing loss

  2. Only 20% of those who could benefit from hearing aids use them

  3. Untreated hearing loss is associated with social withdrawal, communication difficulties, depression, cognitive decline and a greater susceptibility to falls

  4. The use of hearing aids helps alleviate these risks

Navigating this brave new world

Let’s enter this brave new world, however, with some reasonable expectations.

The current bill passed in the Senate proposes that OTC aids would be available for people with mild to moderate hearing loss.  I can only wholeheartedly support this bill if  it is modified so that the OTC aids are for individuals with only a mild loss. Those with a greater degree of hearing loss – moderate or more severe loss – will require input from a licensed audiologist to receive appropriate benefit. That said, having a mild hearing loss doesn’t necessarily mean having mild problems. So if there are any questions or concerns, even with an OTC hearing aid, I highly recommend consulting with an audiologist.

Today’s digital hearing aid technology is terrific. But for hearing aids to work well, they need 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. To do this and achieve maximum benefit requires help. It has been my experience that consumers who purchase hearing aids without the guidance of a qualified audiologist are frequently dissatisfied with the result. This was confirmed in a

study conducted earlier this year. The audiology team at CHC works hard with each and every client to ensure he or she is getting the maximum benefit from amplification.

We do not yet know what features will be incorporated into OTC hearing aids in the future. After this bill becomes law, the FDA will establish guidelines governing the new hearing aid marketplace, but that will take some time. It could be three years before OTC aids are readily available to consumers. I encourage everyone, in the interim, to be proactive in addressing their hearing health needs. The fitting of hearing aids is both an art and a science. It requires a comprehensive audiological evaluation as well as an understanding of the individual’s unique hearing and communication needs, given lifestyle, career and leisure demands.

In an age of OTC hearing aids, I would encourage people to continue to seek the counsel of a licensed audiologist to ensure you’re getting the device that’s right for your hearing ability and properly tuned features. At CHC you will be able to choose from a vast array of the finest hearing instruments – including OTC products as soon as they become available.

I look forward to sharing more on this topic as soon as the FDA determines the guidelines and we have a better sense of the timeline.

Wishing all of you a happy and healthy August!

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