Are all hearing aids created equal?

Man holding hand up to ear

Approximately 30 million Americans experience age-related hearing loss, yet statistics show that only about 14% of those with hearing loss use assistive hearing technology, often because they cannot afford costly hearing aids. To address this concern, the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act was introduced in the Senate on December 1, 2016 by Charles Grassley and Elizabeth Warren. The bill would make certain basic hearing aids available over the counter (OTC) with no prescription or medical exam required. The thinking is that many who need a hearing aid, but have gone without, would finally get one.

Making hearing aids accessible to more people more easily and for less money may sound like a great idea, but there is some cause for concern.

Is there a doctor in the house?

One major concern from The Hearing Industries Association and other professionals is that the bill, in effect, asks individuals to self-diagnose. “Many hearing issues are not simply age-related, but are tied to an underlying medical condition,” explains Dr. Heather Dean, Audiologist at Sierra Nevada Hearing Aid Center. “Asking an untrained person to diagnose their own hearing condition and pick a hearing aid off the shelf is a pretty tall order and could lead to problems.”

While all in the audiology industry welcome better hearing opportunities for all Americans, many think the diagnosis and treatment of hearing problems is best left to the professionals. Hearing loss is most effectively managed with a professional hearing test, fitting, training in the use of the device, and follow-up appointments to fine tune the technology.

OTC products presume a lot of skill, or luck, for an untrained population to successfully pick out and use an over-the-counter product. Per a statement by Hearing Industries Association, “This [bill] will require consumers to self-diagnose both the cause and degree of their hearing loss.... It would do so in spite of the fact that no studies have indicated that people can accurately self-diagnose either the cause or the extent of their hearing loss.”                                   

The Academy of Doctors of Audiology supports the bill with the caveat that the OTC products “be very specifically labeled and include a strong recommendation that a patient seek a comprehensive audiological evaluation from an audiologist or physician.”

Is OK good enough?

OTC devices can be purchased right off the shelf with no support from a trained audio professional. That means there is no one there to show you how to use the device, to fit it to you or to make any adjustments to improve effectiveness. OTC hearing devices also have little to no customization ability. They are simple amplifiers that make everything louder – from your spouse’s speech to your neighbor’s lawn mower. Improving hearing is rarely just about making everything louder. If the hearing loss only occurs at a certain frequency or in a particular listening environment, increasing volume may not help at all.

In contrast, when you purchase a hearing aid from a professional audiologist, the devices are loaded with technology that enables them to automatically adjust to your hearing and lifestyle needs and preferences, no matter how complex. They also come with the expertise of a professional who can fit you, train you in their use and adjust them to optimize performance.

While hearing aids can be expensive, one could argue that our hearing is quite valuable and worth the investment. “It is certainly possible that individuals could improve their hearing experience with the use of an over-the-counter hearing aid,” says Dr. Dean, “but that does not mean they are optimizing their hearing. A professional audiologist is best equipped to maximize an individual’s hearing experience.”

If you or a family member are experiencing hearing loss — whether sudden or gradual — we encourage you to consult with a trained audiologist. SNHAC has the expertise and the quality hearing products to provide the best customized solution for you.