Hearing aids have been taking Washington DC by storm of late. First was the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) report entitled “Aging America & Hearing Loss: Imperative of Improved Technologies” in 2015, followed by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report “Hearing Health Care for Adults: Priorities for Improving Access and Affordability” last summer.
Both recommended a new category of hearing aids — one that could be sold over-the-counter (OTC) similar to how people buy aspirin or reading glasses. And just a few months ago, a bipartisan bill that authorizes a new category of OTC hearing aids for people with mild to moderate hearing was introduced in Congress.
The idea has been quite controversial, with proponents favoring the improved ease of access for these important devices and detractors worried that audiologists would be cut out of the process, increasing the risk that the aids would be used improperly or even dangerously.
Many of us have moderate or severe hearing loss, so these devices are not relevant for our immediate hearing needs. We require sophisticated devices and skilled audiologists to fine tune our settings. We need multiple programs and linked hearing assistance technologies that would not be available OTC, at least at first.
So why should we care? Here are my reasons. Please add yours in the comments.
1. Increased innovation: Innovation is a natural byproduct of competition. Large consumer electronic companies are eager to offer hearing related products, many of which may seamlessly integrate into existing smart phone applications. As the technology advances, it won’t be long before new features are incorporated into more traditional hearing aids and vice versa.
2. Reduced stigma: If more people are wearing hearing devices — and maybe some of them even look cool — stigma will fade. Increased access builds awareness and better understanding of the issues people with hearing loss face. Perhaps accommodations like hearing loops and closed captioning would become more standard fare too.
3. More service oriented audiologists: With devices available across multiple channels, the audiologist role will evolve into a provider of hearing services rather than primarily devices. Perhaps these services could even by covered by insurance over time.
4. Lower prices: With increased competition, prices have nowhere to go but down. Unbundling of audiologist services from devices will also allow patients to better understand what they are getting for the price they are paying. Increased clarity will allow consumers to make better choices for themselves and their families.
5. An emergency back-up pair: Do you ever worry what you would do if you lost your hearing aids or they needed to be sent out for a lengthy repair? While OTC aids might not be ideal for your particular hearing loss, they may be better than nothing in a pinch or as a back-up.
6. Safer options for those already buying over-the-counter: Unregulated OTC hearing aids already exist in the form of personal sound amplifiers or PSAPs. By law, PSAPs cannot be marketed to people with hearing loss, but that doesn’t prevent people from using them as hearing aid alternatives. While some PSAPs are safe and effective, many are not. An official OTC category would include strict quality standards enforced by the FDA and clear labeling explaining proper usage.
7. We don’t have to use them: Just because there is a new category of devices available does not mean we have to use them. We can continue to access high quality hearing aids from the manufacturers and audiologists we already know and trust.
Readers, do you care about the pending OTC hearing aid legislation?