Well, hear, hear! A much delayed, but important health care reform has gotten off to a rocking start. Consumers with moderate hearing loss now can buy hearing aids with greater convenience and less cost — over the counter and without prescriptions.
New devices, new makers, and new retailers have raced in to tap a big need and potentially lucrative market, due to regulatory changes finally put in effect by the federal Food and Drug Administration, as the Wall Street Journal reported:
“Retail chains such as Walgreens, CVS, Walmart and Best Buy carry [hearing aids now], and they are also available on Amazon.”
(To see the startling change in the cost and availability of hearing aids, just look at a recently emailed CVS advertisement, as shown above — the display of which, by the way, is not an endorsement of the vendor or product).
USA Today listed names of some of the makers and brands, including Bose, Jabra, Eargo, Lively, Audien, Audicus, MDHearing, Nuheara, Nano, Go Hearing, and Lucid.
Media organization have posted an array of helpful, consumer-focused articles for those with hearing that has dimmed and interest in what the change in federal regulations means for them and what options they now have with hearing aids. These include guides by USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, and the New York Times and its product information “vertical” the Wirecutter.
The various articles report that Biden Administration officials estimate that OTC devices will save consumers $3,000 on average, with the aids costing anywhere from $199 to $3,000 — far less than the previous, typical price that could run $5,000 for a pair.
Patient advocates long have criticized the high cost and inconvenience that they blamed on excessive regulation that forced patients to seek expensive specialist care, receive formal prescriptions, and purchase hearing aids made by a handful of makers charging sky-high prices. Advocates for the previous system said it protected the public from shoddy equipment and ensured that trained experts gave thorough evaluations as to why patients might suffer hearing loss.
The old ways became tougher to sustain, though, as technological revolutions swept away the means that people around the globe used to listen to music — on increasingly smaller, highly portable devices with rapidly improving fidelity and ubiquitous headphones, earphones, earplugs, and other such accessories. Here is how the New York Times reported circumstances changed:
“In 2015, a scientific advisory committee to President Barack Obama issued a report recommending that the FDA create a new category of basic, over-the-counter hearing aids to help encourage innovation and drive down costs. Two years later, Congress passed the Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act. Under the legislation, the FDA was supposed to issue draft regulations for nonprescription hearing aids by August 2020, but the agency missed the deadline.”
The FDA, even prodded by the former administration and struggling during the coronavirus pandemic, did not finalize new hearing aid regulations. President Biden, in July, signed an executive order requiring the agency to issue a draft of new regulations by November.
The Wall Street Journal emphasized that the new hearing aids will be a boon for millions, though they will not work for everyone with impairment:
“[The new devices] are intended for people with mild to moderate hearing loss, helping them before their hearing is so bad that they need professionally fitted hearing aids. After first experiencing hearing loss, it takes people an average of five to seven years to seek help, according to the Hearing Industries Association … There are some signs you may need a hearing aid. The first indication often is when loved ones tell you they think you have a problem. Other signals include cranking up the volume on the TV or radio above what others prefer and finding it difficult to participate in conversations in noisy places. You may also become tired after listening; people who have trouble hearing often compensate by reading lips, which can be fatiguing.
“The American Academy of Audiology recommends seeing an audiologist to determine whether you’re a good candidate for OTC hearing aids. Hearing evaluations are usually covered by insurance (though hearing aids themselves often aren’t). If you decide OTC hearing aids are right for you, the organization also suggests having an audiologist check the settings against your hearing loss to make sure they are programmed to suit your needs. In addition, the audiologist group says it is important to see a doctor if there is an obvious difference in hearing between ears or if you experience pain or drainage from an ear. Fullness or pressure in your ears, sudden hearing loss or tinnitus — ringing in one or both of your ears — are also reasons to see a doctor before buying OTC hearing aids.”
In my practice, I not only see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on them by bankrupting and dangerous drugs as well as defective and dangerous products, notably of the medical kind. Patients also can see clear benefits by staying healthy and far away from the U.S. health care system. It is, according to research conducted in pre-coronavirus pandemic times, fraught with medical error, preventable hospital acquired illnesses and deaths, and misdiagnoses.
Experts are learning just how important good hearing can be in helping people protect their cognitive capacities as they age, as the Washington Post has reported:
“The greater availability of hearing aids could improve the lives of those with untreated mild to moderate hearing loss and also mitigate the risk of dementia for millions of people in the United States. Dementia is one of the biggest health obstacles to aging well. It is irreversible, but we can reduce our risk of getting it. One important, and historically underappreciated, way of preventing it is addressing hearing loss. By taking care of our hearing, we can also take care of our brains. More than 50 million people were living with dementia worldwide in 2019. This number is expected to grow with an aging population: More than 130 million people are forecast to be living with dementia in 2050. Hearing loss in middle age — ages 45 to 65 — is the most significant risk factor for dementia, accounting for more than 8% of all dementia cases, research suggests. A 2020 Lancet report calculated that hearing loss approximately doubles the risk of dementia, akin to the increased risk caused by a traumatic brain injury. In addition, because hearing ability exists on a continuum, even subclinical hearing loss can mean a greater risk for dementia.”
We have much work to ensure that health care is not a privilege but a right in the wealthiest nation in the world. We must ensure that medical services, devices, and prescription drugs are accessible, affordable, safe, efficient, and excellent.