Are OTC hearing aids ‘cheaters’ for ears?

by Patty Reiman

Some types of hearing loss can now be addressed with over-the-counter hearing aids, much like drug store reading glasses – a.k.a. “cheaters” – can be a less complicated option for vision clarity.

Federal legislative changes in October 2020 permit hearing aids to be sold without a prescription. This new regulation can make hearing aids more accessible and perhaps at a lower cost, according to audiologist Bridgid Whitford, director of hearing services for Cleveland Hearing & Speech Center.

“This gives patients choices in how to obtain hearing help,” she said. “However, most people will see the benefit of having a hearing healthcare provider involved in their care. OTC hearing aids are a starting point.”

An OTC hearing aid is intended only for individuals over the age of 18 with mild-to-moderate hearing loss and without medical concerns relating to the hearing loss, such as ear deformity, pus, excessive earwax and other conditions. Costs (per pair) can range from $100 to $3,500, with the average being around $1,000.

On the plus side, Whitford said that OTC hearing aids may reduce patient cost since an audiologic evaluation is not required. Also, the change to OTC sales will encourage more competition, bringing down prices while also making them more accessible. Patients in rural areas, for example, might have difficulty travelling to a hearing professional but can now buy OTC aids at local drug stores.

People who chose an OTC hearing aid, however, do not have the support of a provider to help with proper fit or setting up the hearing aid, which typically is paired with a smart phone and has a “one-size-fits-most” design, according to Whitford.

“OTC hearing aids may not work well for those who are not tech savvy, have dexterity or vision issues or who have a small, large or atypical ear shape,” she said.

Whitford added that some of the cost of prescriptive aids may be covered by an insurance plan, meaning the OTC version might end up costing more. 

“You get what you pay for,” she said. “As far as I’m aware, there is no insurance coverage for OTC hearing aids.”

Forgoing a professional evaluation also means patients aren’t screened for underlying medical conditions that may be causing the hearing loss.

How does the quality of a prescriptive vs. OTC hearing aid compare?

“Some of that remains to be seen,” said Whitford. “OTC hearing aids are in their infancy and range from junk amplifiers to stripped down versions of prescriptive hearing aids.”

She said a higher price point typically is due to advanced processing of speech in noise, adding that noisy surroundings are difficult to hear in, even for those with normal hearing. ∞