It’s been over two years now since the OTC hearing aid act became law. The Act gave the FDA three years to establish guidelines for approving OTC hearing aids as safe and effective.

At this time, the FDA says it has not approved any OTC hearing aids. They are still working on developing those guidelines. But we can expect that to change in the near future. In the meantime many are turning to amplifying devices with mixed results.

It’s still unclear how the industry will evolve as a result of the bill’s passage. Audiologists, like myself, are beginning to rethink our practice models as we plan for a future that includes more over-the-counter options for patients.

Should I welcome and encourage more affordable OTC solutions once available? Or should I continue to promote the more advanced and custom solutions built around the patient’s hearing profile? Can we all co-exist?

I explore the answers, and more below.

OTC hearing aids changing the landscape

Nicholas R. Reed, AuD in an article published in Health Affairs, made an excellent point when he said this. “Probably that will make hearing aids more affordable…But it won’t affect the barriers to accessing hearing-care services, which generally need to optimize the function of these devices. Most people, if you put two hearing aids in their hand, will have little idea of what to do with them.”

As a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, he realizes what so many in our profession do. The primary barrier to hearing aid wearing has never been the cost for most people.

It has been “understanding” how to use them. It’s been the adjustment period during which people become accustomed to hearing again. As many as 25% of people who have hearing aids don’t wear them.

And this is where professionals like myself come in. We’re helping people get the most out of their hearing aids or OTC solutions.

This point is further demonstrated in the fact that nearly 42% of people who were asked: What would be the most critical factors in selection of your hearing care professional? ranked the “credentials of that person” as most important.

Furthermore, 51% said they would not consider OTC solutions without the support of a professional.

This shows the value that those struggling with hearing put on our services, regardless of whether OTC options exist. And it exemplifies how audiology and the OTC bill co-exist for the betterment of our patients.

So audiologists are still needed. This is why.

But the emerging audiology practices need to diversify and provide a resource for patients who need good hearing health care for new or existing amplification.

We achieve this through better public education and referral relationships. We create the best initial diagnosis and treatment paths for patients. And we must reach out to those patients who need amplification but have not committed to that change.

Less focus on product more on service

Hearing aids are the only viable solution for the treatment of sensorineural hearing loss. That’s the kind that people typically experience as they age or are exposed to loud noise. It involves the death of cells in the inner ear that do not grow back once damaged or destroyed.

For some time, this has made audiology and hearing aid almost synonymous from the outside looking in.

But the presence of OTC options soon to be on the market puts a new focus on the service I provide to my patients. Among other things, that’s helping them understand their hearing health. And it’s helping patients adapt to hearing aids OTC or otherwise, so they’ll use them.

Better online education

As our role further changes, audiologists like myself can do more to educate patients. And given the importance of the Internet in the everyday lives of my patients, much of this should be online.

Because if it’s there, people will Google it. They’ll share it on social media. Many will benefit.

I want to see my patients thrive in their new hearing aids. And I recognize my staff, and I can only do so much during the limited time we have with a patient.

People need resources to help themselves.

A more patient-centric practice

A more patient-centric practice means listening to patients. What are they saying on social media and in reviews? Nearly 80% of people say online reviews are essential when choosing an audiologist.

But I look at reviews as something else. Each review shows me what we’re getting right and where we could use some work.

As audiology clinics, we must reflect on how patients see us.

Is the check-in/out process as efficient as it could be? How long are people waiting? Are we running the proper diagnostic tests? Are we delivering desirable patient outcomes?

Do patients feel supported by me as a professional? We only know when we follow-up and listen. This is something I’m strongly committed to doing.

General Assembly, AAA President, Lisa Christensen, AuD said in a recent meeting of the American Academy of Audiology, “What if we stopped competing with ourselves, and do what we do well with our profession and the patients that we serve with confidence.”

I tend to agree.

Becoming a better option

The patients I see who’ve sought OTC solutions are using hearing amplifier devices, not hearing aids. These are not unlike the hearing bells people used in the 1800s. They only make sound louder.

Unfortunately, sound is more complicated than that. People who lose their hearing don’t just lose volume. They lose the ability to hear specific frequencies (pitches).

Many people struggle to understand people who tend to speak in higher pitches. Women and children often speak higher, but everyone’s voice goes up and down as they speak.

Many also struggle with individual high-frequency letters like “S”, “F” or “TH”. So “see” might be confused with “the” or “fee”.

It forces the brain to work a lot harder. You have to use context to compensate for what you can’t hear.

As an audiologist, I can run tests to determine which frequencies you struggle with. Modern hearing aids can be adjusted to compensate for missing frequencies. This can dramatically improve your ability to understand frequencies you can’t hear.

This allows me to be your second-opinion doctor after you tried something else. You’ll never get an amplifier loud enough to fix the frequency dilemma. But I can show you something that will.

And I expect that prescription hearing aids will continue to advance. They’ll set themselves apart from OTC options that come on the market in the next couple of years.

Hearing aids today already have some fantastic features like:

  • Audio streaming and taking calls from your smartphone
  • GPS location
  • Biometric sensors (sort of like a Fitbit, but in your ear)
  • Bluetooth
  • Tracking cognitive engagement
  • Remote programming
  • Advanced feature for those with dexterity issues
  • Translation services
  • Voice-over-text

Hearing aids have definitely not fallen behind the times. They’re some of the most advanced technologies some people will have in their homes.

The future of hearing health

Over the counter options may have disrupted the hearing health industry. But like so many changes, they’re prompting evolution in how we practice. And it’s for the better.

I welcome the future of hearing healthcare. It will be better for patients. And it will help audiologists like myself further prove the value of our hearing services.Are you looking for a different kind of hearing health visit experience? Are you satisfied with OTC options? Contact my office and schedule an appointment.

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