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The Conversation

Sept. 25, 2021, 11:41 a.m. EDT

Hearing aids could soon cost less than $1,000 and be bought at the drugstore

By Lucas Berenbrok and Elaine Mormer

Over-the-counter hearing aids may soon be  hitting the shelves of community pharmacies nationwide .

We are a  pharmacist  and  audiologist  who study the potential ways OTC hearing aids could be distributed and managed. In a market dominated by  only a handful of manufacturers , hearing aids that are available without a prescription will be more accessible to the estimated  28.8 million U.S. adults  who could benefit from their use.

A new class of hearing aids

hearing aid  is a device worn around the ear that makes desired sounds more audible for people with hearing loss. Hearing aid devices include a microphone, amplifier and a miniature loudspeaker to make sounds louder. Traditionally, these devices have been accessible only from licensed hearing aid dispensers or audiologists.

In 2017, the  FDA Reauthorization Act  designated a new class of hearing aids that will be available over the counter to increase the accessibility and the affordability of hearing aids for U.S. adults. These hearing aids will be able to be purchased  without a medical evaluation by a physician or a fitting by an audiologist . However, OTC hearing aids are intended only for adults who believe they have mild to moderate hearing loss.

Implementation of these regulations is a year overdue, largely because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In July, President Joe Biden  directed the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services  to issue proposed rules within 120 days for how OTC hearing aids can be marketed and sold.

How community pharmacies will sell these new devices is still unknown, but the law will undoubtedly increase public access to hearing aids. For one, pharmacies are more accessible to Americans than audiology practices. Audiologists  tend to be located  in metropolitan areas with higher incomes, younger populations and greater insurance coverage, with a smaller proportion of people who need hearing aids most – namely, older adults. In contrast,  90% of Americans  live within 5 miles of one of the  more than 60,000 community pharmacies nationwide .

This will also get hearing aids into patients’ ears more quickly. It typically takes an average of  four to five years  after individuals recognize their hearing loss before they see a healthcare provider, and sometimes an additional six years to obtain a hearing aid device. With this  new law , people will be able to purchase OTC hearing aids as soon as they become aware of their hearing difficulties.

OTC hearing aids will offer a do-it-yourself approach to addressing hearing loss. For example, a smartphone app may be used to guide users on how to  self-measure and self-adjust  the hearing aid to best fit their ear.  Traditional hearing aids  require a professionally administered hearing test and technical features that may allow more customized fine-tuning.

Increased access at lower costs

Only  3.7% of people  reporting hearing difficulty own hearing aids. In addition to increasing accessibility, the 2017 federal law also intends to make hearing aids more affordable.

Traditional hearing aids cost an average  more than $5,000 per pair , while OTC hearing aids will likely be  less than $1,000 . The charges and services associated with hearing aids, including the fitting process, which takes an  average of 2.5 audiology visits , are  not typically covered  by Medicare, Medicaid or private insurers. At prices similar to  monthly car loan payments , hearing healthcare services are often exclusive to people who have the means to pay high out-of-pocket expenses.

There are also  racial disparities in hearing aid use . Although Black Americans are more likely to have had a recent hearing test, they are less likely to regularly use hearing aids than white older adults. Such disparities can have potential negative consequences for health and quality of life, including a higher risk of  cognitive impairment, dementia  and  falling , as well as  social isolation, loneliness  and  depression .

The pharmacist’s role in OTC hearing aid adoption

While OTC hearing aids won’t require consultation with a medical professional, pharmacists are expected to play an important role in ensuring their safe and effective use.

As  among the most accessible types of healthcare providers , community pharmacists are trained to identify, prevent and resolve medication problems. Pharmacists additionally have long helped patients purchase  medical devices and equipment  like  glucometers for diabetes testing  and  blood pressure monitors  for hypertension at their local pharmacy.

It is likely that community pharmacists will soon help patients select and purchase OTC hearing aids, and refer them to audiologists and physicians for additional screening, treatment and care when appropriate. They may also follow up with patients to ensure that the device works as expected. To prepare pharmacists for this new role, the University of Pittsburgh has developed the  first online program  to teach pharmacists and pharmacy technicians how to help patients safely choose OTC hearing aids.

By providing a lower-cost and more readily available option, OTC hearing aids have the potential to address significant barriers to hearing aid adoption and use.

Now read: Hearing aids are about to become way cooler—new lower-cost devices could shake up the industry

Lucas Berenbrok is an associate professor of pharmacy and therapeutics at the University of Pittsburgh. Elaine Mormer is a professor of audiology at the University of Pittsburgh. This was first published by The Conversation — “You may soon be able to buy hearing aids over the counter at your local pharmacy.”

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