In October 2021, the FDA released a proposal to establish a new category of over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids, which would allow devices under this classification to be sold directly to consumers without a hearing exam or the services of an audiologist or hearing instrument specialist. While we understand that the idea of a lower cost option holds appeal for many, there are many factors to consider when selecting a device to aid in your hearing health care. Many of these factors are often overlooked in favor of focusing on the cost of a hearing aid without seeking to understand the services, maintenance, research, upkeep and longevity provided with that price point.
A third of those between the ages of 65 and 74, and half of those over 75 years of age have some degree of hearing loss. However, only 30% of those with hearing loss use hearing aids. There are many reasons for that discrepancy, including but not limited to: denial of hearing loss, not believing their hearing loss to be “bad enough” to warrant aid, vanity (not wanting to be seen wearing a hearing aid, finding the idea of wearing a hearing aid embarrassing, or lack of awareness of current hearing aid options and appearances) and cost.
Hearing aids are an investment, but they do not need to be an investment that breaks the bank. Hearing aids come in five levels of technology, or tiers. Each level has benefits, and while certain additional features or capabilities on the upper levels must sometimes be considered, each tier has several options for quality hearing aids from each of the major manufacturers. At Hearing Advancement Center, we have a wide range of price points and will always do our best to accommodate each individual’s personal needs and financial situation.
While these hearing aids, even at their lowest price point, may cost more than some of the over-the-counter options soon to be available (if not already released) to the public, it is worth understanding why.
It is not as simple as sticking a microphone or amplifier into your ear. Each year the major manufacturers contribute millions of dollars into research on ever updating technology, the auditory system, auditory decline that happens with aging and noise exposure, and psychoacoustics, in addition to various options to increase the intelligence and capabilities of the hearing aids they launch every spring. They are constantly researching, adapting, upgrading and improving their offerings.
Non-OTC hearing aids are produced primarily through major manufacturers such as Signia, Starkey, Phonak, Oticon, Unitron and other manufacturers. While it is not unusual for new, smaller companies to enter the field on occasion, they typically do not have much success overall due to the various complications unforeseen in this field, such as a high failure rate of micro-components being introduced into ears, individual preferences for sound quality and the inability to offer the required support for troubleshooting.
The ability to provide well-researched and tested hearing aids with all of the necessary small parts and components to keep such a small electronic device functioning well for an extended period of time despite the non-ideal conditions that ears provide for electronics (being warm, damp places that are often filled with debris), along with customer support, repairs, continued research and technological advancement, compatibility with other electronic devices such as phones and televisions for user convenience, and the several other services these manufacturers offer demands a certain level of cost. As such, a decent percentage of the cost of a pair of hearing aids purchased at our office is simply covering the cost of production of the product.
There are some big box chains that can offer hearing aids at a lower price point. However, this is because they work with one or two of the major manufacturers and purchase in bulk, buying thousands of units at a time. At Hearing Advancement Center, we order each pair specifically for the individual after carefully discussing and selecting from different brands, features, levels, colors and types of earpieces for patient comfort.
The other portion of the cost of a pair of hearing aids purchased at Hearing Advancement Center refers to what is known as “bundled pricing.” What this means is that you pay for all the services our office provides (with the exception of out-of-warranty repairs, which do not occur for at least three years post purchase for most aids) upfront as part of the purchase price. These services include but are not limited to real ear verification, fitting of the hearing aids, follow-up appointments, troubleshooting of the aids and any compatible accessories, cleanings, small part replacement, in office repairs, educational support, continued adjustments and fine tuning to accommodate changes to the shape of the ear as well as changes to the auditory system over time, and more.
These and many other factors contribute to the purchase price of a pair of hearing aids from Hearing Advancement Center and are why the cost is more expensive than a generic over-the-counter pair.
However, cost is not the only thing to consider when debating an OTC hearing aid purchase.
Over-the-counter hearing aids, based on the information we have been given and our exposure to their predecessors, as-seen-on-TV amplification devices, are for mild to moderate hearing loss. Mild to moderate is a clinical term indicative of hearing loss that falls within specific parameters as determined by a diagnostic hearing exam. However, over-the-counter hearing aids require no exam to purchase. Without an exam, how is a person to know if the devices will be of any use for their specific hearing loss?
Additionally, these over-the-counter hearing aids are frequently going to make use of “self-tuning,” or using a person’s phone or buttons on the devices themselves to make adjustments to the volume and other settings. Non-over-the-counter hearing aids are also capable of self-adjustment via apps, and a fair portion of our clinic time is spent troubleshooting these options with patients who lack the technological understanding to adequately use these features and require additional assistance. However, if the devices were purchased online or at a store with no tutorial or readily available appointments, what will someone do if they run into difficulty with this option?
There are a few over-the-counter options already available from various companies, though it appears that many of these hearing aids do not stream music or allow someone to take phone calls while wearing them in the way that some non-over-the-counter options do. These are features that many of our patients love and use daily, and without which they struggle immensely while trying to use the phone.
Because of these and other difficulties that present while trying to manage small electronics, particularly health care-oriented ones, we have already had our fair share of questions come in regarding over-the-counter hearing aids and requests for assistance in using, maintaining and troubleshooting them. However, to keep things fair for the patients who did purchase their hearing aids here, as well as to cover the expenses incurred in keeping our office running and our staff available for our patient’s needs, there will need to be charges for services for any hearing aids that were not purchased privately from our office. This includes over-the-counter devices, devices purchased through third-party insurance groups, devices purchased online, devices inherited from family or friends, and more.
These fees will vary depending on the types of services rendered.
Thank you for your understanding.