OTC hearing aids: Audiologists explain what you need to know

Over-the-counter hearing aids are now available without a prescription. For Minnesota audiologists, it's a chance to raise awareness about hearing loss, as the devices hit store shelves Monday.

"There are definitely people who need hearing aids that aren't getting them. Roughly 38 million people have hearing loss and haven't done anything about it," said Dr. Jason Leyendecker, the president of the Minnesota Academy of Audiology.

Insurance has been limited for hearing aids, and cost has been a big factor, with some people paying more than $5,000. The over-the-counter devices retail for as low as $199, but ranging far beyond that.

Leyendecker said the ability to buy hearing aids without a prescription is a game changer for people in rural communities and underserved areas. He said people wait an average of seven to 10 years to seek help after discovering they have hearing loss.

"Overall, it should provide more access to care, reduce some of the costs for some people, or get people more excited about hearing technology earlier on in in the process," he explained.

Although cost is a large barrier, audiologists say the stigma surrounding wearing hearing aids is an even larger reason people don’t seek help.

"I really see over-the-counter benefiting that person who's been dragging their feet, doesn't think they need it, doesn't think they're ready for it. I hope this is enough for them to say, ‘Well, I'm going to give this a try,’" said Dr. Heidi Hill, a doctor of audiology at Osseo-based Hearing Health Clinic.

But doctors caution that there will be challenges with these devices, too.

A hearing exam isn't required for these devices, but Minnesota audiologists recommend that people still get one to gauge the severity of their hearing loss.

"Find out: ‘Am I an over-the-counter candidate?’ I've had patients I've seen I'm like, ‘You know what? You're a good over-the-counter candidate,’" Hill said.

Over-the-counter hearing aids are only for people with mild to moderate hearing loss, and doctors warn the people who buy them need to be tech-savy.

"They will break down. They will. And so, what is your warranty and what is the warranty cover? Does the warranty cover anything?" Hill said.

Eden Prairie-based company Starkey is currently making its version of an over-the-counter product called Start Hearing one.

"For the first time in my career as an audiologist and in my role here at Starkey, we're seeing conversations about hearing loss and the use of hearing aids start to become more prevalent," said Dr. Dave Fabry, the chief innovation officer at Starkey.

Starkey's device, which can be controlled through an app, is scheduled to be available in mid-November.

"Our biggest competitor in the market is not one of the other incumbent manufacturers or consumer electronics, but non-adoption. More people who have hearing loss choose to do nothing rather than use hearing aids," Fabry said.

The device will not be sold at big box stores. Consumers 18 and older can buy it at hearing health clinics in the U.S.

"The audiologists are dispensers, so that if the patients that they're seeing want to have a solution that is lower-cost and involves that ability to do the fitting and the adjustment of the device on their own, this may be an important solution for them," Fabry said.

Fabry said if someone buys an over-the-counter hearing aid and starts getting a buzzing in their ears or they're noticing other changes, then they should seek professional help.

Starkey also offers a free online hearing test. Click here for more info.