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OTC Hearing Aid Resources for Primary Care Physicians

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With over-the-counter hearing aids available at local pharmacies, big box stores, and online retailers, your patients may come to you for trusted advice. By asking them a few simple questions, you can help your patients determine if OTC hearing aids are a good fit to address their hearing issues.

Why Hearing Aids are Important to Patients

Hearing loss is linked to an array of serious conditions including depression and anxiety, and in older patients, dementia, falls, and reduced mobility. As with other conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, hearing loss is more effectively treated before it becomes a severe problem.

Despite these serious risks, many adults hesitate to address their hearing loss. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) estimates that only 16% of individuals aged 20–69 and 30% aged 70 and older who could benefit from hearing loss treatment pursue hearing aids.4 Cost and access to services have been cited as potential barriers to using hearing aids. OTC hearing aids aren’t a cure-all. They are only intended to help adults with perceived mild to moderate hearing loss.

Quick Facts About OTC Hearing Aids

Pros

  • Someone can purchase OTC hearing aids without visiting a medical professional.
  • OTC hearing aids will cost less than prescription ones. A pair of OTC hearing aids will likely cost around $1,000 or less.
  • Accessibility and cost may entice more people with hearing loss to explore treatment.
  • OTC devices can be a good option for adults with a mild to moderate level of perceived hearing loss.

Cons

  • OTC hearing aids require people to self-diagnose their level of perceived hearing loss, rather than getting their hearing loss measured by an audiologist.
  • Without a formal assessment, ear disorders may go undiagnosed (e.g., cholesteatoma or impacted ear wax).
  • OTC devices do not come with a follow-up care plan or rehabilitation.
  • Patients will not work with a hearing professional to monitor hearing levels over time or troubleshooting OTC device issues. People with OTC hearing aids may accidentally over- or under-amplify sounds.
  • There is no use of verification or best practices for hearing aid fitting and follow-up.

Who Should Use OTC Hearing Aids?

OTC hearing aids are only for adults. Children under 18 years of age should never use them. OTC hearing aids are also designed to help with mild to moderate hearing loss. People with that level of hearing loss likely experience some of the following symptoms:

  • Difficulty hearing in group settings, on the phone, or in loud places
  • Difficulty hearing when they can’t see the person who is talking
  • A tendency to turn up the TV or radio volume much higher than other people
  • The frequent need to ask others to repeat what they said, or to speak louder, more clearly or more slowly
  • Sounds that seem muffled

Use this hearing checklist [PDF] to understand whether OTC hearing aids will work for a patient.

Who Shouldn’t Use OTC Hearing Aids?

OTC hearing aids are not for every person with hearing loss. In some cases, such as when a person has cognitive or dexterity issues, OTC hearing aids might not be the best choice. In addition, it’s important to rule out underlying medical conditions before recommending OTC hearing aids.

If a patient complains about the following symptoms, they should seek medical treatment before considering OTC hearing aids:

  • Excessive ear wax or a feeling that something is stuck in the ear canal
  • Pus, blood, or fluid draining from the ear within the past 6 months
  • Pain or discomfort inside the ear
  • Hearing loss that came on suddenly, quickly worsens, or fluctuates
  • Tinnitus or hearing loss in only one ear
  • Vertigo or dizziness accompanied by hearing loss

Use this hearing checklist [PDF] to understand whether OTCs will work for a patient.

When to Refer a Patient to an Audiologist

Even when a patient seems to be an ideal candidate for OTC hearing aids, it’s still a good idea for them to get a hearing examination by a licensed audiologist that will reveal what type of hearing loss they are experiencing and how severe it is in each ear.

Audiologists can help patients decide if OTC hearing aids will benefit them, or if they need prescription hearing aids to manage their hearing loss correctly. If a person’s hearing loss is more serious than they thought, OTC hearing aids could offer minimal benefits or even be counterproductive. Research shows that when hearing loss is left unmanaged, or if it is poorly managed, patients are at increased risk for cognitive decline. Patients must be aware of the serious consequences hearing loss can have on their health.

How to Find a Certified Audiologist Near You

If a patient decides to accept a referral for an evaluation with an audiologist, ASHA’s ProFind tool can help. You or your patients can use it to find certified audiologists.

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