Now at local stores: Over-the-counter hearing aids

Changes to obtaining a hearing aid might remove medical access barriers, but finding the best choice may be challenging.

Over-the-counter hearing aids are now increasingly available at neighborhood and local big box stores for adults with mild-to-moderate hearing loss.

As when purchasing any electronic device, there are a number of factors to consider in addition to price.

They include the style of the hearing aid (behind the ear versus in the ear), whether the battery is rechargeable, and what features are built in, such as being able to adjust the device for noisy environments with a phone app.

Perhaps the most important question may be one of the easiest to answer: Do you need it?

“It’s been estimated that 90 percent of adults with hearing loss fall into the mild-to-moderate range,” said Jeffrey S. Martin, chief of audiology for UW Medicine. “If you’re having trouble with background noise, and are turning up the TV, you’re probably in that category.”  

There have been ongoing efforts to underscore the importance of hearing loss as a major health issue, he said. Research suggests that age-related hearing loss, particularly if untreated, may be associated with increased risk of early onset of dementia.

“Now we have this over-the-counter hearing aid,” Martin said. “There’s a good rationale for it.”

However, they are not appropriate to manage hearing loss in children or infants, he said.

[Related: downloadable video soundbites about OTC hearing aids with Dr. Cliff Hume, a UW Medicine otolaryngologist.]

The devices vary in price, from a few hundred to $1,000 and up.  Before consumers make that kind of investment, what should they consider?

The first might be to take a step back and decide whether to get a hearing test, either online or a more formal test with a hearing specialist.

There’s value in getting a formal hearing test, Martin said, because it involves more than the simple tones heard in online testing. 

“They get a better idea of speech perception ability, which is important for fitting hearing aids,” he said “You can have two people who have the same result on hearing tests but differ widely on their ability to understand speech.”

Health insurance plans often cover some or most of the costs of these in-person tests, he said.

Although a number of hearing tests can be found online, “not all online measures of hearing may be reliable measures,” he said. The National Hearing Test, developed with funding from the National Institutes of Health, is offered free to  members of AARP (formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons).

While online tests can provide information on hearing loss, having the data provided by a formal hearing evaluation puts adults in a better position to make a decision if they want to pursue over-the-counter hearing aids, Martin said. 

Over-the-counter hearing aids are likely to have some customization features or presets for users in certain listening situations, such as loud background noise that sometimes occurs in restaurants.

A comfortable fit is key in the decision of what type of hearing aid to buy.

If a hearing aid isn’t fitting properly in the ear, it’s not going to function as well as one that does. 

“For any of the over-the-counter styles, it’s difficult to know, how will that feel in my ear?” Martin noted.

If it's not comfortable, chances are it won’t be used.

As more is learned about over-the-counter hearing aids, studies will be done on their effectiveness.

“At the moment we don’t offer our patients specific brands of over-the-counter hearing aids,” Martin said. That may change in the future.

“I do worry that there will be some percentage of the public that will try over-the-counter hearing aids and because they don’t fit very well or didn’t get the expected benefits, they might well turn off to the idea that hearing aids help,”  he said.

“What if the selected over-the-counter hearing aid was not appropriate from the outset? This may be difficult for some individuals to navigate on their own," he added.

Hearing aids help manage a person’s hearing loss by providing some access to speech they normally don’t get, he said.

“There’s not a perfect hearing aid out there,” Martin observed. “Hearing aids do not fix the ear.” 

The availability of over-the-counter hearing aids does help people who otherwise might not be able to obtain a device. 

 “The over-the-counter hearing aids may play a valuable role for certain patients,” Martin said. “They remove the barrier of medical access. You don’t have to have three appointments to have a hearing aid.”

Tips before you buy

1) Check that what’s being sold is an over-the-counter hearing aid. There’s a federal requirement for the package to clearly state that it is an over-the-counter hearing aid.

2) Does the manufacturer have a return policy and, if so, what is it?

3) What is the process for resolving issues if the over-the-counter hearing aid isn’t working properly?

4) What style of hearing aid do you prefer?  Behind the ear or in the ear? Depending on the shape of the ear canal, some people find in-the-ear aids more comfortable. 

5) Is the battery rechargeable?

6) What controls on the hearing aid are controlled by an app?  

This news item was written by Sharon Salyer.

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Tags:hearing loss

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