Have you heard the news? A big change is coming: Hearing aids will soon be available without a prescription.
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More than 28 million U.S. adults could benefit from hearing aids — but hearing hasn’t always been highlighted as the key aspect of health it is. Not all insurances (including Medicare) cover hearing aids or associated professional services, so many people put off trying to improve their hearing.
By the end of the year, though, over-the-counter hearing aids (OTC HAs for short) will be available without a prescription — so now might be the time to put your hearing first. Audiologist Sarah Sydlowski, AuD, PhD, MBA, discusses this big change, including what it means for your hearing and why you should still be seen by an audiologist.
What to know about over-the-counter hearing aids
In the past, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) categorized hearing aids as medical devices that could only be distributed by a licensed hearing professional. But a new ruling means that by this fall, OTC HAs will be available in places like drugstores and pharmacies.
“Over-the-counter hearing aids are appropriate for people who perceive that they have mild to moderate difficulty hearing,” Dr. Sydlowski explains. “Similar to ‘readers’ for people with moderate vision loss, they’re an entry-level solution for people who are beginning to notice some difficulty hearing in noisy places or groups, but they won’t adequately address more significant hearing losses.”
She continues: “That said, even mild hearing loss can be very problematic if left untreated, so OTC HAs may be a good place to start.”
To purchase them, you’re not required to have:
- A hearing test.
- An appointment with an audiologist or physician.
- A prescription.
You also won’t need professional help to program your hearing aids. This is an entirely new approach to hearing devices, as traditional hearing aids have to be adjusted and programmed by an audiologist.
But as is so often the case, this news comes with both pros and cons.
“Empowering people to select and fit their own devices has the potential to improve access to hearing devices,” Dr. Sydlowski says. “But ultimately, we want to improve hearing capability and outcomes, and often, that’s about more than just a device.”
Why you should still see an audiologist
Technically, the new regulations mean you don’t need to see a licensed professional about hearing loss. But if you think you’re experiencing difficulty hearing, it’s best to make an appointment.
“Working with a qualified audiologist is still the best course of action for the majority of people with hearing loss,” Dr. Sydlowski states.
Audiologists are doctoral-level professionals who are trained to diagnose types and degrees of hearing loss. Here’s why you should make an appointment to see one, even if you think your hearing loss is minimal.
1. Get a hearing test
Most people can’t accurately identify the degree of their hearing loss — basically, you can’t know exactly much you’re not hearing. An audiologist can help.
“The best thing to do is still to have a hearing test to learn more about the type and the degree of hearing difficulty that you’re experiencing,” Dr. Sydlowski says.
During a hearing test, your audiologist will play a variety of pitches, from high to low, to determine the softest sounds you’re able to hear. They’ll also evaluate how your hearing across those pitches affects your ability to understand words and communicate with others.
The results of your hearing test will determine whether you have hearing loss — and, if so, how severe it is. A hearing test is nearly always covered by insurance.
2. Learn about your choices
There is a range of options to protect the hearing you have and improve your hearing when hearing loss is present. If your hearing test shows that you have hearing loss, your audiologist might tell you that OTC HAs will do the trick, or they may recommend a prescription hearing aid, or even cochlear implants and implantable bone-conduction hearing devices.
“If you’re a candidate for hearing aids, you can schedule a hearing needs assessment to more thoroughly discuss your options, including hearing aids, assistive devices, wireless connectivity, hearing loss prevention, and more,” Dr. Sydlowski says.
In short, while over-the-counter hearing aids might seem like the cure-all for your hearing problems, only an audiologist can help you correctly identify the right device for your needs, as well as provide the services to optimize your experience and benefit.
3. Have your hearing aids properly programmed
An audiologist is also trained to optimize the fit of your hearing aids and counsel you on expectations for using them. “The importance of this step can’t be overemphasized,” Dr. Sydlowski says. Audiologists can also confirm that any hearing aid you use is providing maximum benefit.
If you think you have mild hearing loss but actually have more significant loss, using a poorly programmed device (or the wrong device altogether) won’t help you hear as well as you could.
“Often, patients who wear hearing aids are shocked when we make adjustments or program different devices to their current hearing levels and their hearing capability increases by 50% or more,” Dr. Sydlowski recounts. “They’ve had no idea that they could be hearing better.”
The risk of using over-the-counter hearing aids
Using the wrong device may be just as worrisome as using no device at all.
“Over-amplifying your hearing by using too strong of a device can cause further hearing loss,” Dr. Sydlowski says. “But perhaps the greatest concern is under-amplifying hearing loss, either by not using a device at all or by using the wrong device. The hearing nerve and brain need to be stimulated in a certain way, so partially restoring the expected stimulation can’t deliver all the benefits needed.”
The verdict on over-the-counter hearing aids
OTC HAs offer an easy entry point to hearing aids for people who’ve yet to address their hearing loss. They may well be the right device for you, but there’s just no way to know for sure until you’ve had a thorough evaluation.
“Over-the-counter hearing aids are a great addition to the wide range of devices available, and I would rather see people with mild hearing loss using them than nothing at all,” Dr. Sydlowski says. “But they’re not a replacement for the expertise of an audiologist. You only have one set of ears for a lifetime — and they’re worth the investment.”