Have you heard about the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017, recently passed by Congress and signed by the president over the summer?
The new law, once fleshed out with Food and Drug Administration regulations, will allow the retail sale of hearing aids for adults with mild to moderate hearing loss — without the critical involvement of an audiologist or medical doctor.
On its face, the legislation may sound like a good idea. An estimated 48 million Americans or one in five people has some form of hearing loss, according to a Johns Hopkins Study, making access to today’s advanced hearing technology an important part of tackling a growing public-health challenge.
Self-treating for hearing loss, however, can do more harm than good. And with so much at stake — untreated hearing impairment is linked to physical, mental, social, and even financial consequences — you can’t afford to take chances with one of your most crucial senses.
Nonprescriptive hearing devices are already available over the counter as personal sound amplification products (PSAPs), which the FDA defines as “wearable electronic products for use by non-hearing impaired individuals to amplify sounds in certain environments.” They typically comprise three main parts: a microphone, an amplifier, and a receiver.
Though potentially helpful in normal hearing to amplify sounds in situations such as watching TV, listening for animals during outdoor recreation, or hearing a presenter who’s speaking some distance away, PSAPs are neither FDA-approved nor recommended to treat actual hearing loss.
In addition, PSAPs:
- Are often uncomfortable in the ear and — for many patients — difficult to manage
- Could cause hearing damage or aggravate existing damage with misuse or overuse
- Have contraindications — for example, ear pain, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease that could lead to serious harm
- Can amplify sounds but typically can’t adjust to the user’s specific hearing loss or help the brain process sound
- Sidestep the vital process of professional testing, programming, fitting, and follow-up, which doesn’t allow a hearing care professional to rule out hearing problems and ensure the device is appropriate for a patient’s ears
The newly enacted law, part of a larger Food and Drug Administration Reauthorization Act, will allow selected devices classified as actual hearing aids to be sold over the counter so long as they meet certain regulatory standards of safety, labeling, and manufacturing.
Unfortunately, the legislation will also allow patients to bypass a certified audiologist when getting a hearing aid, creating a significant gap in their hearing care.
Just as professional dental care is more than selling toothpaste, proper hearing care is more than selling hearing aids. Licensed audiologists are specially trained to:
- Evaluate and Diagnose Hearing Problems — Your local audiologist can perform diverse tests to determine the state of your hearing and identify the type, severity, and cause of any hearing difficulties.
- Treat Hearing Loss — With professional expertise, advanced hearing technology, and knowledge of your lifestyle and listening needs, audiologists provide hearing aid solutions tailored for you.
- Handle Fittings and Follow-Up — Audiologists custom program your hearing aids, ensure an appropriate physical fit, counsel you on adjusting to the devices, and follow up to make sure they’re working.
- Maintain Your Technology — Hearing care professionals help you keep your devices working their best by cleaning, checking, and repairing them.
- Provide Continuing Care — Audiologists care about your hearing for life, and they can adjust treatments as your lifestyle and listening needs change.
When it comes to hearing care, nothing replaces seeing an actual professional. As noted by a leading consumer-advocacy group, different hearing aids and PSAPs may vary in effectiveness, “so it’s best to have a professional hearing test first, and consider asking an audiologist or hearing aid specialist for guidance in determining which device is right for you.”