OTC Hearing Aids? Let’s Be Cautiously Optimistic

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OTC hearing aids

For many people with hearing loss, the first step toward treatment and care is to visit a hearing healthcare professional. But what if you could stop by the drug store and pick up a set of over-the-counter hearing aids, pop them in, and off you go – no appointment or testing necessary?

After the signing into law of the Over The Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017, this possibility might become a reality. But is this new legislation really all it’s cracked up to be? Let’s take a look at how we got to this point.

The Repeal Of The Physician Waiver System

This new OTC hearing aid legislation comes on the heels of the elimination of the so-called “physician waiver” system, which required people with hearing loss to gain a physician’s consent before they received a hearing aid. Nowadays, adults (children must still see a physician) no longer have to seek a medical evaluation from a physician and can see other hearing healthcare professionals for advice and guidance on hearing aids and to get them fitted.

Many in the hearing health care and in the patient advocacy worlds lauded the repeal of the physician waiver system as it makes hearing aids more accessible to people who may not have the time or resources to go to multiple appointments for a consult with a physician. Instead, people can seek treatment directly from a number of other hearing healthcare professionals so that they can get their hearing aids more quickly.

While the Over The Counter Hearing Aid Act may also seem like another step toward increasing hearing aid accessibility, we ought to take a look at the benefits and implications of such legislation on patients.

The Over The Counter Hearing Aid Act

On the face of it, the notion that someone could walk right into their local pharmacy, pick up a set of hearing aids and pop them in seems pretty cool. The new legislation tasks the FDA with creating and regulating a whole new category of OTC hearing aids so that they can be manufactured to the same quality as prescription hearing aids.

Since the law is designed for people with mild to moderate hearing loss, people with severe or profound loss will still need to see a hearing healthcare specialist to receive treatment, but is the new legislation all it’s cracked up to be?

Advocates for the law believe that this could help reduce the stigma around wearing hearing aids and can make them significantly more accessible to people who might not have health care or simply don’t have the time or resources to see a medical professional about their hearing loss.

On the other hand, many hearing healthcare professionals and consumers are concerned about the potential negative implications of the law.

In a recent study, nearly 75% of respondents say they wouldn’t consider an OTC hearing aid option and that they would still want the support and guidance provided by professional hearing healthcare specialists. Many hearing healthcare professionals agree that the consumer should be skeptical of these new changes in hearing health care legislation.

While it may seem like a great move toward better hearing health care accessibility, the new legislation is concerning to many because it essentially eliminates the need for a professional hearing consultation before treatment.

This might seem like a minor thing for people with mild or moderate hearing loss, but if people can skip right to purchasing their own hearing aids in a pharmacy, they might not get the proper health care that they truly need. For many people, these OTC hearing aids may be a possible treatment for a symptom, but they certainly won’t address any underlying causes or problems.

Moreover, the legislation, while well intended, does not appreciate the value of professional hearing health care, which the vast majority of consumers believe is “very” or “absolutely important”. Without the proper testing and support, patients may end up with expensive hearing aids that they don’t need or they might not be receiving the right treatment to help them live their life to the fullest.

At the end of the day, it is important to remain cautiously optimistic about these recent developments in hearing health care. While greater accessibility and affordability of hearing aids can certainly benefit significant numbers of people, we cannot overlook the value of a professional hearing healthcare consultation and the benefits of a proper hearing aid fitting.

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