OTC hearing aids may not solve healthcare’s hearing problems

Over-the-counter hearing aids could make their way to shelves as early as mid-October and could increase competition between companies leading to lower costs.

COLORADO, USA — The FDA gave the green light this week for companies to create a new class of hearing aids that won’t require an exam or prescription – anyone will be able to easily buy them over-the-counter at the store. 

Hearing aids could make their way to shelves as early as mid-October.  It could increase competition between companies, which in turn can lower costs.

9NEWS spoke to two audiologists: Dr. Julie Prutsman the owner of Sound Relief Hearing Center and Dr. D’Anne Rudden an audiologist with Hearing the Call a non-profit that helps make hearing services affordable. The two gave their input on the latest bill that would make hearing aids available in stores.

As an audiologist, what’s your reaction to the FDA paving the way for hearing aids to be sold over the counter?

Prutsman: As an audiologist, my main concern is the health of my patients and I’m concerned that we’re going to be missing hearing issues, like wax impactions, ear infections and acoustic tumors even if patients do not have a hearing assessment first, prior to purchasing anything.

I would really advise people to get their hearing checked by a licensed audiologist before buying anything related to over-the-counter devices.

There’s so much more that comes to the success of wearing a hearing device, you need to be instructed on how to properly insert it, take it out, maintain it, and care for it to make sure that it’s working at its optimum. Without any partnership with an audiologist you’re lost in a way because you don’t know, ‘Am I doing this right?’ ‘Am I supposed to put this at half volume, full volume?’ ‘Is it even appropriate for my situation?’

So it’s going to result in a lot of issues I think and I’m concerned patients will go home and they’re going to tell their family, ‘I tried a hearing aid it didn’t work for me,’ and then they’ll give up and lose hope that someone can actually help them make a difference with the hearing loss. So I really advise people to work with an audiologist to see what they’re dealing with before purchasing a device and think about what they want long term for this to look like.

Rudden: For some folks that perceive mild to moderate hearing loss, really making things louder is all that they need but for other folks, when we make things louder it doesn’t always make things clearer for them. So this is where I think over-the-counter devices can be a really great starting point for people along their hearing journey, but it may not be right for everyone and that’s where audiologists can really diagnose what the issue is what’s going on, what other things that need to be treated that can be interfering with their hearing.

We want people to have access to great sound to keep their brains sharp to keep their communication with the people that they love. That’s why I think that even though it may be more complicated I do appreciate the opportunity to have quality, accessibility and potentially affordable options for people who may have put it off or may have gone without.

If simply offering over-the-counter hearing aids is not the solution, then what is?

Prutsman: Two things. Direct access to audiology services, we’re trying to get a bill passed currently to allow this. Medicare patients cannot go to an audiologist for a hearing test without a referral from their primary care physician. So number one, we don’t have direct access, we’re trying to get that changed now and the second thing is we need Medicare to cover at least part of hearing devices to help offset the costs. We don’t have that currently either.

So there are proposed things that are maybe going to change here soon that will be in the right direction, but really we need more health insurance coverage for hearing aids it’s much like dental care, optical care, chiropractic care, all of us as ancillary providers tend to see coverage way low and we need more plans and more availability for these services that are so critical to our overall health and wellbeing.

Rudden: Our professional organizations have all banded together and we have as audiologists been fighting for many years to get greater access to people with health insurance and especially Medicare recipients. There is a bill being looked at in Congress called the Medicare audiologist and services act that would actually clear the way for some of those barriers that medical recipients have had for getting hearing healthcare. It will take them out of the way and will give much greater access and allow audiologists to actually give back to the scope of our practice what people need for both hearing and balance disorders. 

Audiologists are here to partner with anyone who may believe they have hearing loss. You know we’re here to help diagnose and treat imbalanced disorders and regardless of where you are on your hearing journey, we want you to have access to any and all things that might serve you best. 

There is a perception that hearing loss only impacts elderly people, is that the case?

Prutsman: Hearing loss is not just about age. When I started in this industry 20 years ago the average age was 75 with patients I was seeing, today with tinnitus and hearing loss my average patient’s age is only 57.

We really need to be more aware of what hearing loss does to our overall quality of life if left untreated. We know that one of the most modifiable risk factors for dementia is actually treating hearing loss. So I think people don’t appreciate that when the brain isn’t getting good input it starts to have cognitive issues, so treating hearing loss is amazing when it comes to cognitive issues and trying to prevent cognitive decline.

No age range at all when it comes to hearing loss.

Rudden: It’s not the case at all. In fact, I feel like we see younger and younger people every year that may have been exposed to loud noise or have issues that may have caused hearing loss for a wild variety of reasons, not just the natural aging process. 

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