Hearing aids are complicated little things. Not only are they technologically complex, but the way they are perceived by the healthcare industry is not a simple thing to understand. Currently, you cannot walk into a store and purchase a pair of hearing aids off the shelf like you would a bottle of aspirin or a pair of reading glasses. There is a heated debate in the hearing aid industry whether OTC hearing aids should be permissible by the FDA, but it’s no question that they would help millions of people.

Current State of OTC Hearing Aids

As of now, the FDA does not allow hearing aids to be sold over the counter. Any hearing-assistive device that is sold directly to consumers, without a hearing test or a doctor’s visit, are labeled as “personal sound amplification products” and most are not quite as technologically advanced or customizable as hearing aids.

Personal sound amplifiers are great for people with mild to moderate hearing loss, and depending on the degree of hearing loss, can provide just as much assistance as hearing aids. However, their existence is not widely known and because they are labeled differently than hearing aids, many hearing loss advocates argue that the people who can benefit from them are missing out.

The Hearing Loss Association of America is pushing Congress to create a new category of hearing aids to be sold over the counter, designed for mild to moderate hearing loss. The bill has not yet passed, but in December 2016 the FDA did take a step in the right direction by waiving the previously-required medical evaluation.

OTC Hearing Aids: More Accessibility

One of the biggest obstacles for people who need hearing aids are the accessibility and lack of ease to get most hearing aids. While there are easier models like Audicus, which allows you to shop for hearing aids online in the privacy of your home, many places that sell hearing aids require you to go in the store with your hearing test and get fitted in person. While this may seem like a good thing—you can speak with an expert, you can ensure you have the best fit—it can be somewhat of an arduous process. The prospect of shopping for hearing aids in public can also deter many people, as wearing hearing aids is still somewhat stigmatized in modern society.

OTC Hearing Aids: Normalizing Hearing Loss

Introducing OTC hearing aids to the market would be a big leap in the challenge towards normalizing hearing loss. Although hearing loss is one of the most common afflictions in the US and around the world, hearing loss is not as acceptable and normalized as a similar disability, like bad eyesight. Making hearing aids easily and widely available would have great effects in combating the negative stigma around hearing aids. Hearing aids should be seen as assistive pieces, like eyeglasses.

Increase Innovation and Decrease Cost with OTC Hearing Aids

 Another benefit to introducing OTC hearing aids would be expanding the hearing aid market and industry. If hearing aids were more easily purchased, there would be a bigger market for them and more technology companies would want to produce hearing aids. That good old American capitalism would fuel the fires of innovation and inspire companies to come up with novel approaches to managing hearing loss. More competition could also decrease the cost of hearing aids.  

There are millions of people with mild to moderate hearing loss that aren’t getting the help they need because there are obstacles to buying hearing aids. Allowing the sale of OTC hearing aids would be a huge boon to the hearing aid population and the hearing aid industry. We look forward to hearing aid advocates and the government working together to make this a reality.

By: Elena McPhillips