What is an OTC hearing aid and how does it differ from traditional hearing aids?

By, Margaret Christiansen, Au.D.

With the passing of the Over the Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017, the FDA will be creating a category for Over the Counter (OTC) hearing aids by 2020.  This means that within several years, some form of hearing aid will be available over the counter.  The intent of this class of hearing device is it will be suited for those with perceived mild to moderate hearing loss.  Until this category is developed, it is speculation as to what these aids will be.

The idea behind OTC hearing aids is to help make hearing aids more affordable and accessible.  The OTC hearing aids will not have the same technologies seen in traditional hearing aids and will not be set based on individual losses.  While the traditional route of obtaining hearing aids will still yield the best result, some individuals with minimal hearing loss may see some benefit from the OTC aid.

The experience of getting an OTC hearing aid will be very different than the traditional hearing aid purchase.  Since there will be no requirements for obtaining an OTC hearing aid, it is likely individuals will purchase OTC aids without having their ears visually inspected or having a hearing test.  Missing these steps may lead to inappropriate use of hearing aids and will miss the opportunity to catch signs of ear disease and make necessary suggestions for medical intervention. 

The OTC hearing aid is an “out of the box” solution that will aim to accommodate a “standard” hearing loss.  While this may provide some benefit, it can’t take the place of amplification customized for individual needs.  Traditional hearing aids have advanced features that allow the aid to automatically adjust to varying environments and loudness levels.  Hearing aid fittings should be validated using real ear measurements to ensure the aids are programmed appropriately and are delivering the needed amount of amplification. Instruction needs to be provided on the use and care of the hearing aids including batteries, cleaning, sanitation options, use of controls on the hearing aids, counseling on realistic expectations and strategies to improve communication.  Support over the lifetime of the hearing aid for services such as fine tuning, adjustments, cleaning, and troubleshooting are essential.  Without these components, it is not possible to appropriately fit hearing aids or be able to succesfully address hearing concerns. 

The OTC hearing aid will soon be an available option which some individuals may use as a “stepping stone” before they seek out customized, advanced hearing aid technology or as a cost saving option.  The hope is the reduced cost for these units will encourage more people with hearing loss to adopt hearing aid use.  The fear is the success with OTC hearing aids won’t match expectations since they won’t be customized for individual losses or needs.  

Traditional hearing aids are available with options ranging from budget-friendly to premium technology.  Consultation with an audiologist will determine the technology to best meet your hearing, lifestyle and budget needs.