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Guest editorial: Before going OTC, check under the hood

Cheaper Over-the-Counter Hearing Aids Should Be in Stores by October, FDA Says (copy)

It’s important that people understand the risks that come with self-diagnosing their hearing loss and using over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids.

The news earlier this month that the Food and Drug Administration has approved a new class of hearing aids one can purchase over the counter is encouraging news for people with mild to moderate hearing loss.

The cost to test your hearing, purchase a hearing aid, and have it fitted can run anywhere from $2,000 to $7,000 or more, according to the site GoodRx. The new class of OTC hearing aids could potentially cost less than $1,000. For the 80% of our population with hearing loss that doesn’t use a hearing aid, in part because of cost, this opens a potential door to better hearing.

That said, it’s important that people understand the risks that come with self-diagnosing their hearing loss.

“These [OTC] hearing aids may be great for people who have a problem fairly early on,” says Christine Gilmore Eubanks, an audiologist at the Longwood University Speech, Hearing, and Learning Services department. But self-diagnosing your hearing loss, she continues, can be like addressing the issue of squealing brakes on your car by turning up the radio.

You mask the real problem for a while, but only for a time. And all the while, the issue becomes more acute, and potentially more dangerous.

“I worry about someone who has a medical issue” that is causing the hearing loss, Eubanks says. Securing an OTC hearing aid only delays the time an individual takes before consulting a doctor.

She also is concerned about people who underestimate the amount of hearing loss they have, and parents who buy them for their children. What happens when they don’t fix the child’s hearing issue?

Another concern, Eubanks says, is that people won’t get support services—how to wear them, how to use them, and how to adjust to them.

So many people don’t have hearing aids because insurance coverage for these devices is spotty at best. Making hearing aids available OTC will certainly lower costs and help some, but these devices will continue to remain out of reach for many. A price tag of $1,000 is well beyond the scope of ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) families to afford, as well as many in the middle class.

Further, better OTC hearing aids will likely be double that $1,000 figure, or more. In short, that’s the same amount you would potentially pay to see an audiologist, be tested, and then fitted properly with an entry-level prescription hearing aid.

But this is just another example of why as a nation we need to move toward establishing some sort of national health care available to everyone. Whether that means refining and approving Obamacare, adopting Medicare for all, or some other system.

Filling the gaps in medical coverage by offering OTC products is no solution, but it is a path to health care that more of us are reaching for, as sales of OTC products have soared in recent years.

Should you take advantage of OTC hearing aids, Eubanks has some advice. If the product improves your hearing, but then your hearing begins to wane, get a hearing test.

Your loss could be due to normal wear and tear and present no real health concerns. Or, it could be something more serious. And turning up the volume won’t make it better.

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