It’s an exciting week for people with hearing loss. Over-the-counter hearing aids are now in stores—well, the first crop anyway. More options should hit stores over time, hopefully in a variety of designs, styles and with a multitude of features to meet the varying hearing needs of people with mild-to-moderate hearing loss.
Just like with traditional hearing aids, a one-size-fits all approach is not likely to work. Some people may be looking for all-day wear, but at a lower price point. Others may need hearing aids only situationally meaning audio clarity and ease of use may be more important than battery life. The market will eventually dictate the features that consumers want most.
Traditional and Non-Traditional Players Abound
Both traditional hearing aid manufacturers and non-traditional players like consumer electronics companies are poised to enter the market. Some may do it together. For example, Bose has partnered with Lexie Hearing to offer two styles—unfortunately neither has streaming capabilities— and Sony has joined with WS Audiology on two new products. Even Starkey, whose CEO has been the most vocally anti-OTC has plans to enter the market.
Form factors (the way the hearing aid looks) vary. Some look like traditional aids—both behind-the-ear aids and in-the-canal styles—while others look more like earbuds. Consumer demand will ultimately decide the winners and losers in this new category.
Why are OTC Hearing Aids Important?
According to the NIDCD, only 20% of people who could benefit from a hearing aid use one. Part of the reason is likely cost—traditional hearing aids can run up to $6000 a pair—and part is also likely due to stigma. People don’t always embrace their hearing challenges right away or may prefer devices that don’t look like typical hearing aids.
Another reason for low usage rates may be that people, especially those with mild-to-moderate hearing loss only require hearing assistance situationally. It’s hard to justify a multi-thousand dollar purchase if you will only use it sometimes. Lifestyle solutions like earbuds or souped-up AirPods may work best for this group over time.
Treating Hearing Loss Critical to Overall Health
Hearing loss is sometimes not taken seriously, considered a natural part of aging or something you just learn to live with. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Hearing loss can lead to depression and social withdrawal. It separates you from the people and activities you love. Treating it is of critical importance.
Hearing loss is also associated with many health issues including a higher risk of falls. Hearing loss is twice as common in people with diabetes and highly correlated with cardiovascular disease. It is also linked to higher risks of developing dementia although, thankfully, subsequent studies indicate that addressing hearing loss can reduce these risks.
The Future for Hearing Care is Bright
The extensive media coverage has already shown one way OTC hearing aids will benefit us all—through increased attention and focus on hearing loss. But living well with hearing loss takes more than devices. Rather than excluding audiologists, I hope OTC hearing aids will inspire them to expand their practices to include more of these critical softer skills, many of which Gael Hannan and I discuss in our book Hear & Beyond: Live Skillfully with Hearing Loss.
My hope is that OTC hearing aids will allow more people to do something about their hearing loss, keeping them healthier, happier and more productive. Time will tell.
Readers, are you excited for the OTC hearing aid market to begin?