Photo credit: Nicolas Sadoc licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

From October 17, Americans can now buy hearing aids without seeing an audiologist, otolaryngologist, or hearing aid dispenser. Five years after Congress passed a bill authorizing over-the-counter sales of hearing aids, federal regulations allowing the sale of the devices went into effect. They will be available at drugstores and retail outlets like Best Buy and Walmart.

Some analysts and experts hold out great promise for OTC hearing aids, stating that these more affordable hearing aids will allow people who can’t afford traditional hearing aids to afford them.

I am much less sanguine.

First, the prices of the top-rated OTC hearing aids aren’t cheap. Some cost only $300, but The New York Times Wirecutter site’s top-rated choices range from $1,500 to almost $3,000 for a pair. For older Americans who are more likely than younger people to need hearing aids, that may be too much money. Many retirees rely only on Social Security for their income, with the average Social Security benefit being less than $20,000 annually.

Second, perhaps more importantly, choosing a hearing aid isn’t as simple as choosing a pair of drugstore or supermarket reading glasses off the rack. Eyeglasses provide a visual correction. Hearing aids merely deliver an amplified sound wave to dead or damaged cochlear hair cells. Hearing health advocate Shari Eberts wrote about this.

Audiologists have explained to me that fitting the right hearing aid for each patient is part science but also part art. Should the hearing aid be occlusive or should the external auditory canal be part open? How should the frequencies be adjusted? Where should the microphone be? And after the initial fitting, there may be weeks or months of adjustments and the patient learning how to use the hearing aids.

I hope I’m wrong, and that OTC hearing aids will help millions of Americans hear better.

Only time will tell.

But in the meantime, we can all prevent noise-induced hearing loss, and those who already have hearing loss can protect what hearing they have.

Avoid loud noise, leave the noisy environment, or use hearing protection.

Because if something sounds loud, it’s too loud, and your auditory health is at risk.