IU Study Opens Up Discussion About Over-The-Counter Hearing Aids

Mar 24, 2017

Credit Bundesinnung Hörgeräteakustiker / https://www.flickr.com/photos/134783624@N07/

An Indiana University study indicates hearing aids fitted by a patient are just as effective as those fitted by a professional audiologist.

Currently, hearing aids aren’t able to be purchased over-the-counter. Instead, people must have a professional evaluate their hearing loss, set the hearing aid’s sensitivity and teach proper use.

But the study shows even when patients fit and adjust the hearing aids themselves, they report hearing improvements and satisfaction similar to patients who work with an audiologist.

Study author and IU professor Larry Humes says that could have important implications for making hearing aids more accessible to the millions of people who need them but don’t have the money to buy them. He adds the current “best practices” model keeps millions of people from receiving the hearing tools they need.

“Older adults that have hearing loss or think they have hearing loss have to jump to actually gain access to a hearing aid,” he says.

Statistics from the National Institute of Deafness and other Communication Disorders say among adults 70 and older with hearing loss who could benefit from hearing aids, fewer than 30 percent have ever used one.

He says he’d like to see hearing aids made available over-the-counter in the same way eyeglasses are.

“You can go to a large number of drugstores in your community and purchase them directly,” he says. “And because of the competitive forces, and they’re very simple reading glasses—the devices themselves are very simple—they’re more affordable.”

Hearing aid companies have criticized measures to make the devices more easily available—such as a bill currently in Congress that would enable patients to buy hearing aids over-the-counter—as potentially risky and ineffective.

“Access and affordability are already increasing due to the expansion of ‘disruptive’ market forces already in play, such as hearing aid sales at Big Box stores, through Internet sales and increasing numbers of third-party payment programs,” said the industry’s main lobby, the Hearing Industries Association, in a statement. “All of which include the professional care inherent to successful adoption of hearing aids.”

All patients in the IU study used the same high-quality hearing aid. Humes concedes that hearing aids available over-the-counter could be less effective than the ones used in the study.

Additionally, because of the requirements of the study, all recipients—even the ones who used the over-the-counter delivery model, received a hearing evaluation from an audiologist prior to the study, a measure Humes says isn’t present in the most “pure” form of the OTC delivery model.

“No studies have indicated that people can accurately self-diagnose either the cause or extent of their hearing loss,” the HIA has said.

The study is the first trial of its kind to compare the effectiveness of the two delivery models. It was published earlier this month in the American Journal of Audiology.