How useful are OTC hearing aids? There are doubts.


Thinking about buying a pair? Beware of the scams.

As we close in on the first anniversary of over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids, a new poll suggests that OTCs have yet to gain any traction, much less attract many buyers. That leaves people with hearing difficulties going untreated and in need of more education. 

The national polling commissioned by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) suggests that 2% of American adults ages 40 and older who have hearing difficulties reported that they have purchased the new hearing aids and only 4% reported that they are likely to purchase OTCs in the next year.

'My hearing's not good, but...'

More than half of American adults aged 40 and over acknowledged lacking excellent hearing, but only 8% had been treated. The primary reason for not seeking help was the belief that the hearing difficulties being experienced weren’t “bad enough” to warrant care.

Nearly half of those with ignored hearing difficulties let their symptoms continue for two or more years. Yet nearly a third with hearing difficulties complained that their hearing loss was having an adverse impact on their quality of life. 

On top of the fact that studies show that hearing aids can significantly reduce cognitive decline, adults who don’t act on their hearing issues run the risk of depression, falls, and other social and medical traps.

“Hearing problems aren’t uniform. They vary and, thus, so does treatment,” Janice R. Trent, vice president for audiology practice, said. “The longer one waits to act, the greater and more costly problems can become."

OTCs are a help, but not an answer

Before and since OTCs became available, ASHA and other hearing pros tried to tell the public that OTCs are intended for persons ages 18 and older who have – and this is important – mild to moderate hearing loss.

But, the public hasn’t gotten that message, and as the poll brought out, only 16% of adults aged 40 and over correctly identify the fact that OTC hearing aids are not for both children and adults, but only for adults.

ASHA says that consumers should think of hearing aids as they think of glasses. Your typical off-the-rack reading glasses just don’t do all that prescription glasses will.

Reading glasses basically magnify one single field of vision as opposed to prescription glasses which take in the whole field of vision. Likewise, some OTCs can also over-amplify things as opposed to hearing aids that can cover a full range of sound frequencies.

Take a free test that nearly every audiologist in the U.S. will give you and you’ll find out the difference.

The question of hearing aid scammers arises, too

Cara Everett at the National Council on Aging (NCOA) says that our collective ineptitude about OTC hearing aids has allowed rogue “hearing aid sellers” to target unsuspecting consumers with false claims, misleading labels, and empty promises of money-back guarantees and customer support that companies don’t uphold.

“Because OTC hearing aids can be purchased without help from a hearing professional, it’s important to know how to spot the warning signs of a hearing aid scam,” which she describes as:

Unknown brand names. “Be cautious if a company’s name is listed only on a single website, with no reviews or descriptions elsewhere,” Everett said. “Most reputable OTC hearing aid companies will be reviewed and advertised on multiple third-party hearing and retail websites.”

Vague or misleading labels. As originally reported by ConsumerAffairs, labels on OTC hearing aids lack regulation. Everett says anyone considering an OTC device should be sure it’s clearly marked as a hearing aid. If it’s not, then, it’s not a true hearing aid.

Fake FDA “registration certificates.” Companies that display FDA “certificates” are presenting false information and here's how you will know: Medical device companies do not receive registration certificates from the FDA.

No trial period or warranty. This is a major red flag in Everett’s mind. Most states require and many companies (e.g. Costco) offer real hearing aid buyers a decent enough period to try those devices out and get a refund if they don’t meet a buyer’s expectations. If a “hearing aid” only offers you a 30-day trial, you should reconsider because it usually takes a little longer to get completely comfortable with a new pair of hearing aids and get all the kinks worked out with tech support or an audiologist.

Lack of customer support. Hearing aids – be they OTCs or the real deal – always come with questions from consumers. Always. Make sure you read reviews and pay attention to the “customer service” of a provider/seller before you buy.

Unsubstantiated claims. “Watch out for language stating a product can cure hearing loss, will give you immediate relief from symptoms, or has the same technology as high-priced hearing aids at a fraction of the price,” Everett cautions, because as science has proven, “There is no cure for hearing loss.”

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