A little more than a year ago, over-the-counter hearing aids officially arrived in the U.S. consumer market, creating concern among hearing professionals and confusion among consumers.
The original legislation that made OTCs a reality had good intentions—to make hearing aids more accessible and affordable, but the jury is still out on where things stand in that regard. In this blog, we take a look at a recent article from an AARP bulletin assessing the status of OTCs, and offer our own take on OTCs and where things stand to date.
- OTCs are supposed to help the millions of Americans with mild to moderate hearing loss. That’s true.
However, individuals with more severe hearing loss still need prescription hearing aids, and no matter what your hearing loss, it’s important to have a comprehensive hearing evaluation to determine which type of hearing aid would best meet your needs. That’s something that all professional organizations agree on.
- Since the launch of OTCs, it’s been confusing for consumers. That’s true, too.
OTC hearing aids are advertised at prices as low as $49 and as high as $1,600 a pair. In some markets, options aren’t easy to find, and in stores such as big box chains, it’s hard to find anyone who can guide you to the best product for your hearing loss. The fact is, most employees in these stores have no training in diagnosing hearing loss or fitting hearing aids of any kind. All this has led to confusion for consumers. According to the AARP article, in a March 2023 Northwestern University study of 1,037 midlife and older adults, 84 percent said they would rather buy hearing aids from a hearing professional.
- OTCs can be as good as prescription hearing aids. That’s questionable.
The article cites a study in which researchers tracked 68 older adults with mild to moderate hearing loss who got their first prescription or OTC hearing aids. After six weeks, both groups had nearly identical scores for ease of communicating with others and ability to hear speech in background noise. Though that sounds like a promising result, with only 68 adults participating, the size of the study group is too small to draw any significant conclusions. Stay tuned for larger studies.
- The do-it-yourself aspect of OTCs, which utilizes a hearing test you take through the new hearing aids connected to a smartphone app, can produce results as good as prescription hearing aids. Maybe.
That may be the case for individuals who have a straightforward mild-to-moderate hearing loss. But the danger is that some individuals with more complex hearing needs may think they can get by with OTC hearing aids, when what they really need are prescription hearing aids that can be programmed and customized for their unique hearing loss by an audiologist. Many consumers also benefit from the guidance a doctoral-level audiologist can provide regarding the type of hearing aid they would be most comfortable with—behind-the-ear or in-the-ear. While there are many other styles of hearing aids, these are the most popular. And while many people think they would like an in-the-ear model for cosmetic reasons, they often prefer the behind-the-ear model for comfort. An audiologist can help guide this selection process.
- Pricing for OTCs has initially been much higher than originally anticipated. That’s true.
Low-tech OTC models may sell for as little as $99, but high-tech models can sell for almost $3,000 a pair. Keep in mind that prescription hearing aids, which can be programmed and customized for the individual’s unique hearing loss, start at $1,500 a pair and top out at a little more than $5,000 a pair. When comparing a pair of higher-end OTCs, be sure to consider prescription hearing aids, too. You may be able to get a pair of prescription hearing aids that better meet your needs by paying the same or slightly more than higher-end OTCs. Plus, if you have an insurance benefit for hearing aids, prescription hearing aids may qualify, and the cost often includes a warranty and the audiologist’s services.
- Finding OTC hearing aids should get easier. True.
OTCs are available at many big-box stores, but remember, buying hearing aids isn’t like buying a box of cereal. They often cost more than the consumer expected, and OTCs require the consumer to be able to set their hearing aids up using an app. If an individual is uncomfortable with that level of technology, they might not be the best option. OTC hearing aids also can be purchased online, and again, require the consumer to set them up. Because of this, be sure to ask about support, the return policy and warranty.
Remember, a hearing evaluation isn’t required in order to purchase OTC hearing aids, but without one, how do you know if you actually have a hearing loss or how severe it is? All professional organizations, including the Academy of Doctors of Audiology and the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, recommend a hearing evaluation before purchasing any kind of hearing aids, OTCs or prescription.
If testing indicates your hearing loss is in the mild-to-moderate range, you can consider OTC hearing aids. But if your test indicates you have a more severe hearing loss, you’ll need to purchase the more sophisticated technology only available in prescription hearing aids.
Resource: Can You Hear Me Now? AARP Bulletin, July/August 2023.