Over-the-Counter Hearing Aids: One Audiologist’s Perspective

Over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids are now available for purchase by consumers over the age of 18. This introduction in the hearing aid industry has been covered extensively by various media outlets recently. An overview and review of devices can be viewed here.

Overall, I am pleased that OTC hearing aids are available for consumers. Over the years, I have consulted with patients who have marginal to mild hearing loss and cannot justify the cost of even entry-level hearing devices, thus having to “live with it” and struggle in certain listening situations. I researched personal sound amplification products (PSAPs) when they were available to find suitable products to recommend to these patients to purchase on their own, only to be thwarted by a lack of specifications even though I tried requesting information from manufacturers. OTC hearing aids differ from PSAPs in that they are programmed based on some type of hearing test results (usually done through a smartphone app) and are designed to not surpass certain noise parameters, keeping amplification safe for users.

When people choose OTC devices, they are essentially leaving out any professional guidance, and I could see where there could be some potential challenges as a result:

  • Is there a need? A professionally administered hearing test would determine the nature and degree of the hearing loss. Is a medical referral needed? Is there just impacted wax or something else that could be improved and possibly negate the need for any devices at all?
  • Are the devices appropriate for hearing loss? OTC devices are for mild to moderate losses, and yet some people who perceive mild to moderate hearing loss may have more than that. (Often times when hearing loss happens gradually, patients are used to a quiet world and are astounded at how much sound they were missing!) Therefore, some who may seek help from over-the-counter devices may be choosing units that are not the best option for their hearing situation.
  • Who will service the devices? OTC hearing devices will have the same need to be serviced and cleaned as any other hearing aid. Wax buildup is a common occurrence with any hearing aids, especially if devices are not serviced and patients’ ears are not cleaned regularly.
  • Are the devices providing adequate performance? OTC devices are designed to be fine-tuned by the user, and while this may have its advantages, one disadvantage is that a person with hearing loss may not know how to adjust the hearing aids to provide maximum benefit.

Integrity Hearing Solutions VIA Willow Valley hopes to have the opportunity to partner with consumers who have chosen to purchase hearing aids on their own, and we can do so in several ways. We can provide a hearing testing-typically covered by insurance- that addresses the questions mentioned above. We can also educate patients on what OTC devices might be better for their specific hearing needs. We can provide follow-up care for OTC devices through routine cleanings and can utilize objective verification equipment (otherwise known as speech mapping or real ear measures) to ensure that amplification is proper. If adjustments are suggested, the person could then adjust his/her own hearing aids for potentially better results.

In some cases, we can even provide lower-cost alternatives. Some models of OTC hearing aids are more costly than some of the products we recommend to patients every day. When patients purchase hearing aids through our practice, we enroll them in discount/third-party programs so that they pay a significantly discounted price (general price range of $1400-4500 for a pair depending on the level of technology and features). Some Medicare replacement plans even cover the cost of certain models of hearing aids in full, and we can advise patients on these matters.

A patient recently came to our office who was trying to choose between purchasing a pair of over-the-counter devices or a lower-cost set using a discount/third-party program. Her hearing loss was in the range where either would have been appropriate. She opted to forego the OTC option and purchase hearing aids for around $1400 for the pair. They are rechargeable, can be paired directly to Bluetooth devices, and can be programmed specifically for her hearing loss using our verification equipment. They have a three-year manufacturer’s warranty included, as well as one year of follow-up/office visits included in the price. She will have a 60-day trial to see if she is happy with them, and will receive a refund if she is not.

In summary, now consumers have another option to consider when improving their hearing: OTC, and self-fitting hearing aids. This audiologist believes that this introduction to the industry has some very positive applications, especially for those who can’t justify a high price tag on a difficulty that is not perceived as significant. We hope to partner with individuals who choose OTC devices by providing hearing testing, periodic service, and guidance on how their devices can be adjusted appropriately for the best results.

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