With bookshelf full health tracking devices It can give us data about our heart rate, sleep cycle, and more. It only makes sense that one of the original health wearables — a hearing aid — would get a brand new one.
Last October, the US Food and Drug Administration relaxed the rules on how hearing aids can be sold, making them available in stores and pharmacies across the US without the need for a prescription or professional fitting by a hearing health professional.
Over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids are for adults with mild or moderate hearing loss – a healthcare professional should still screen children or people with severe hearing loss or reason to believe another health condition is affecting their hearing to find a best fit. And before anyone starts looking for over-the-counter hearing aids, there are special considerations you should make and things to know before you buy a pair of hearing aids at the store.
If you’re in a situation where you’re considering using a hearing aid (perhaps you have trouble hearing people speaking in a noisy room or you’re blasting the volume of your TV), you may be wondering how they stack up against earlier generic prescription models. While buying OTC may save you a few thousand dollars, prescription hearing aids may be equipped with perks like Bluetooth streaming, notes Soundly, a hearing aid comparison site. (You need professional fitting to get Phonak’s latest hearing aids, for example.) Add in the fact that the over-the-counter devices only hit shelves six months ago, and a head-to-head comparison becomes difficult.
There is still promising research coming out on the effectiveness of over-the-counter hearing aids. Here’s what we know now.
How do over-the-counter hearing aids compare to professionally fitted ones?
Over-the-counter hearing aids are a pretty new idea—they’ve been on the market for less than a year. So the research comparing audiologist-supplied hearing aids to a self-equipped device I picked up at Best Buy will need time to build.
A study published last month in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery was the first of its kind to compare OTC hearing aids to prescription hearing aids. In a randomized clinical trial, data was collected from 64 adults who were assigned either a self-priming hearing aid (Lexie Lumen), the steps needed to set it up at home, or the same device by Lexie Hearing but fitted by a hearing aid. At the end of six weeks, there were no differences in the effectiveness of hearing aids between the two groups, suggesting that many adults will be able to get the same benefit from common hearing aids such as the Lexie Lumen regardless of whether they fit them. Or do it professionally in the clinic.
The biggest caveat to this study was that it compared the same hearing aids. Prescription hearing aids are different devices than over-the-counter hearing aids, although the latter may start to catch up as the market changes and companies start trying to compete with each other.
Are over-the-counter hearing aids regulated differently?
Both types of hearing aids are medical devices that are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. This means that over-the-counter hearing aids that you can buy at the store are different from personal sound amplification products that you can also get without a prescription (people might use PSAPs for hunting, for example).
Many people will wait several years after they first notice signs of hearing loss to get a hearing aid, due to cost barriers, the belief that hearing aids won’t be worth it and the stigma surrounding wearing them. Time will tell how over-the-counter hearing aids really take shape, but hopefully their ease of access and sleek design will get them more often into the hands of the people who need them.