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(Rockville, MD) With over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids being among the most anticipated new technologies to hit store shelves in years, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) is advising consumers to be smart shoppers this holiday season if they’re intending to purchase one of these products for themselves or for a loved one.
“We know there is so much excitement from people with hearing loss and their families about over-the-counter hearing aids, and it’s a feeling that hearing health experts share—especially since many people have delayed getting help because hearing aids were out of reach financially,” said Donna Smiley, Ph.D., CCC-A, ASHA’s chief staff officer for audiology.
“But as with other technology purchases—and in this case a product that you’re wearing for a medical reason and that requires significant customization—it’s important to make an informed decision,” Smiley continued. “This is to protect a person’s health as well as their wallet, because these products still come with a considerable price tag.”
OTC hearing aids have been sold in the United States only since mid-October. They are intended for adults with self-perceived mild to moderate hearing loss. ASHA warns that people with hearing loss beyond mild to moderate, as well as anyone under age 18 years, are not candidates for these products. For those populations, OTC devices won’t meet their needs—and could even result in harm.
ASHA recommends that anyone purchasing an OTC product first get a hearing evaluation from a certified audiologist (such evaluations are generally covered by insurance, even if hearing aids are not). This is important because people typically misjudge their degree of hearing loss. A hearing evaluation also can rule out other medical conditions that could be causing hearing loss.
So, what should customers look for when shopping for these products? ASHA advises potential buyers to consider the following:
- Style options. OTC hearing aids come in various styles, including products that sit behind the ear, in the ear, and in the (ear) canal. Shoppers should evaluate which product will best meet their needs. For example, someone who is prone to excessive earwax or who has dexterity issues that make it difficult to handle a small item may do better with a behind-the-ear product. Alternatively, someone who prioritizes a discreet product may want an in-the-ear or in-the-canal hearing aid.
- Product features. Available features include Bluetooth connectivity that lets users stream phone calls and other audio directly from their smartphone to their hearing aid; pre-programmed listener settings that adjust automatically based on a person’s environment (e.g., in a loud restaurant vs. in their home); directional microphones that filter out background noise and amplify the speech of the person in front of them; and rechargeable batteries. Products with more bells and whistles will likely be more expensive, which is why shoppers may want to think about their priorities.
- Lifestyle needs. One way to determine priority features is to consider a user’s lifestyle. Does the person who will wear the hearing aid work from home? Are they frequently in noisy or group settings? Do they like to go to the movies or talk on the phone? These factors can help guide product decisions.
- Return policies. There is no mandated trial period or return window for OTC hearing aids. This is a big difference between OTC products and most prescription hearing aids obtained through an audiologist. What is required is that the return policy—whatever the specifics—be printed on the packaging.
- Product warranties. Prescription hearing aids generally come with a warranty of at least 1 year or even longer, but OTC hearing aids might have much shorter or more limited warranties.
- Specified labeling. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that these products include the terms “OTC” and “hearing aid” on their labels. It’s important for consumers to look for this exact wording so they don’t fall victim to scammers that try to make non–hearing aid products (such as simple sound amplifiers) appear as OTC hearing aids.
ASHA also recommends that consumers do the following:
- Remember who OTC products are intended for. As noted earlier, OTC hearing aids aren’t suitable for everyone. Children and people with greater than mild to moderate hearing loss aren’t candidates for these devices.
- Be patient. Successfully wearing a hearing aid isn’t as simple as “flipping a switch.” Hearing loss is often a gradual process, and the brain adjusts itself over the years to accommodate for this loss. It takes time for the brain to re-adjust once a hearing aid is introduced. Give yourself a few weeks with a new product (although you should cease use immediately if it’s painful). Also know that it can take a lot of fine-tuning to get the settings right.
- Search for feedback from OTC users and product reviews. These are still very new products, so you may not yet be able to find extensive reviews from other customers. However, you can review publications and websites such as Consumer Reports or The New York Times service, Wirecutter.
- Utilize customer service—and consult an audiologist for further assistance. Not everyone has the same tech savviness and comfort level with self-programing a medical device. If you’re having trouble, contact the manufacturer’s customer service line or chat. If you still need help, consider visiting a certified audiologist. Call the audiologist’s office to see if they’ll be able to assist offer with an OTC device not purchased through them, as professional services do vary.
For more information, visit www.asha.org/aud/otc-hearing-aid-toolkit/otc-hearing-aid-faq/. To find a certified audiologist near you, visit www.asha.org/profind.
About the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA)
ASHA is the national professional, scientific, and credentialing association for 223,000 members and affiliates who are audiologists; speech-language pathologists; speech, language, and hearing scientists; audiology and speech-language pathology support personnel; and students. Audiologists specialize in preventing and assessing hearing and balance disorders as well as providing audiologic treatment, including hearing aids. Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) identify, assess, and treat speech, language, and swallowing disorders.