Is an over-the-counter hearing aid right for you?

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Using mini computer technology placed inside his ears, Dr. Kaya Wilkins shows John Vickeryhim on a screen where his hearing is compared to where it should be
Dr. Kayla Wilkins with John Vickery

Hearing aids available without a prescription are expected to start appearing in stores this month, five years after Congress passed legislation requiring the Food and Drug Administration to create a category allowing some to be sold without a prescription.

People will be able to choose and purchase some, but not all, types of hearing aids themselves, without even having their hearing evaluated by a professional such as a doctor of audiology.

Personal sound amplification products that aren’t already hearing aids were once available, but the FDA now has regulations to ensure non-prescription devices are quality as real hearing aids.

Over-the-counter hearing aids have been a goal of organizations like AARP, which say this will make hearing aids more affordable and accessible.

However, if people buy an over-the-counter device and find that it doesn’t help them, it might discourage them from continuing to look for solutions to deal with hearing loss.

To help navigate this new field, three local medical audiologists shared their thoughts on the change and their advice for people with hearing problems.

They expressed hope that over-the-counter hearing aids will improve access to affordable devices and encourage more people to seek ways to improve their hearing.

Yet they also question whether what is becoming available over-the-counter will meet the needs of hearing-impaired patients.

Dr Kevin Barlow

“Some people will be able to benefit from over-the-counter hearing aids and there will also be people who will not be able to benefit from them and will need more assistance,” said Dr. Kevin Barlow, owner of Winter Haven Audiology.

Dr. Amanda Hidalgo

“For some hearing losses, these over-the-counter aids won’t be appropriate,” said Dr. Amanda Hidalgo of the Watson Clinic Bella Vista Building.

“I fear then that these patients believe that there is no solution for them. I like to tell my patients that there is always a solution.

On the plus side, she says, “it can be a good introduction to hearing aids for people who are curious about them.”

Over-the-counter hearing aids are intended for mild to moderate, non-severe hearing loss, a distinction that some patients may not be able to determine on their own.

“I’ve had patients come in and say they have a little or some hearing loss (but) I put them in the hearing booth and it’s a severe, significant hearing loss,” said Dr. Kayla Wilkins, owner of Aspire Hearing and Balance in Lakeland. .

“They didn’t realize what they had missed because it was progressing slowly.”

Dr. Kayla Wilkins

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines mild hearing loss as being able to hear some speech sounds but having difficulty hearing quiet sounds. A person with moderate hearing loss “may barely hear speech while another person speaks at a normal level.”

The cause of hearing loss for some can be as simple as a severe case of earwax blockage, which audiologists and other medical professionals can treat.

Or there could be other medical complications that require treatment.

A key tip from every audiologist:

Take a hearing test before choosing an over-the-counter hearing aid.

The exam is not that expensive, they said. Insurance plans often cover diagnostic hearing evaluations. Some offices offer free hearing tests.

Barlow said he is “truly embracing over-the-counter hearing aids”, but added that “the hearing aid itself is only part of the solution”.

All urged consumers to educate themselves about hearing aids, which Hidalgo described as “a very powerful little computer that sits on your ear.”

They help many, but they are an assistive device rather than a cure.

“Hearing healthcare is not a one-size-fits-all solution” and device reliability can vary, Hidalgo said.

Wilkins suggests reading reviews, researching different types of hearing aids, and making sure there’s a trial period during which it can be returned if the device isn’t working properly.

Making sounds louder isn’t all people with hearing loss need. They need help understanding what they hear and sorting out competing sounds.

Many people develop a background noise problem as they age, Wilkins said, and an audiologist can program a prescription device to determine how much background noise reduction each person needs.

Audiologists can work after the fact to help people understand their OTC device and gauge whether it is improving their hearing as it should.

Barlow said he expects people to ask audiologists to check whether these devices maximize word clarity.

What they won’t be able to do, interviewees said, is program and adjust OTC hearing aids the way they can with a hearing aid designed specifically for a patient.

The patient must log onto an online application to self-fit, Wilkins said.

While everyone expects OTC devices to change their practices, they anticipate that these changes will bring benefits.

“I hope this takes away some of the stigma around hearing aids and hearing health,” Hidalgo said, adding that she has “already had more conversations with patients about over-the-counter options.”

If over-the-counter devices make people more aware of hearing loss, Barlow said, it might be easier to counsel them on how it affects quality of life and communications.

Audiologists also offer other services, such as hearing aid repair or help with tinnitus and balance. They guide patients in adjusting to improved hearing and can help patients preserve the hearing they have.

Wear hearing protection if you’re doing an activity, like mowing the lawn or listening to loud music, that causes you to raise your voice to be heard, Hidalgo said.

Part of the higher cost of a prescription hearing aid through an audiologist is a reflection of that professional’s training and expertise.

There is the cost of research to keep improving the technology.

Part of that also comes from a high-tech device aimed at a small market in a field dominated by a handful of companies.

“I’ve often said that if every household had a set of hearing aids, they would cost less than a television set,” Barlow said.

Contact Robin Williams Adams at [email protected]

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