Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the over-the-counter sale of hearing aids to adults without a prescription. They should start showing up on the market by the middle of next month.
This long-awaited decision represents a significant victory for tens of thousands of West Virginians, and an estimated 30 million Americans, who have mild to moderate hearing loss. The National Health Interview Survey estimates that 25 percent of adults in West Virginia suffer from hearing loss, one of the highest rates of any state.
Currently, hearing aids are only available with a prescription after visiting an audiologist. Hearing aids are expensive, often costing $5,000 or more, and the costs are not covered by Medicare or many private health insurance plans.
The high cost can be a deterrent for many who, as a result, have diminished quality of life because they do not hear well. Additionally, hearing loss can contribute to dementia and depression. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said the FDA’s decision will provide some relief.
“(The) action by the FDA represents a significant milestone in making hearing aids more cost effective and accessible,” he said. The federal agency estimates its ruling could reduce the cost of some hearing aids by as much as $2,800.
The decision is also expected to expand hearing aid options by drawing more manufacturers into the market, said Nicholas Reed, an audiologist at the Department of Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, in an interview with the New York Times.
“This could fundamentally change technology,” he said. “We don’t know what these companies might come up with. We may literally see new ways hearing aids work, how they look,”
It is important to note that the FDA’s decision will not replace audiologists. Individuals with more severe hearing loss will still need to see an expert. The American Speech, Language and Hearing Association stresses the importance of a correct diagnosis.
“Audiologists will test your hearing in sound-treated rooms that keep other sounds out. They use special earphones and equipment that meet national standards. Online hearing screens do not have to meet these standards and may lead to test results that are not correct.”
Additionally, hearing loss may be linked to a more severe issue that requires a professional examination and a more sophisticated hearing device than what will be sold over-the-counter.* Audiologists also assist patients in the proper fitting of hearing aids, and there are some great options for hearing aids online too.
West Virginia is an older and poorer state, where many of our residents have multiple health issues, including poor hearing. Also, many West Virginians work, or have worked, in an environment with a lot of industrial noise that can contribute to damaged hearing. That explains why we have a higher percentage of adults with hearing loss than any other state.
The FDA decision will give West Virginians another, more reasonably priced option to help them hear better and, as a result, improve their quality of life.
*(According to Wirecutter, a product review feature in the New York Times, “A lot of devices sold and marketed (over-the-counter) as hearing aids right now aren’t legally permitted to call themselves hearing aids.”)