Oct 17, 2022 - Economy

The DIY health economy expands with OTC hearing aids

Illustration of small red crosses forming a larger one.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The amplification of the do-it-yourself economy is giving consumers more options to sidestep health professionals.

Why it matters: The DIY health movement can deliver savings and less red tape for patients, but it also raises the risk of missing out on in-person services from physicians and qualified medical professionals.

Driving the news: Hearing aids on Monday became available for sale over-the-counter, meaning people suffering from hearing loss no longer have to pay for a visit to an audiologist to obtain one.

  • Nearly 30 million Americans "could benefit from using hearing aids," per the National Institutes of Health.
  • The White House estimates that the OTC switch could save them $3,000, Axios' Alex Fitzpatrick writes.
  • Walmart, CVS, Walgreens, Best Buy and other retailers are already selling OTC hearing aids, with prices ranging from about $200 to $1,000 and up, Axios' Kelly Tyko writes.

The big picture: "There's been a big move to empower consumers" with their own health care decisions, University of Michigan Center for Health and Research Transformation senior adviser Marianne Udow-Phillips tells Axios.

  • SmileDirectClub is offering patients the option to avoid orthodontists all together, giving them the chance to straighten their teeth with mail-order delivery of clear plastic aligners.
  • After visiting testing sites in the early days of the pandemic, people can now test themselves for COVID-19 at home via testing kits.
  • The FDA is currently considering allowing certain birth-control pills to be sold over the counter.

By the numbers: Since 1976, More than 120 "ingredients, indications or dosages" that previously required a prescription can now be obtained over the counter, according to the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which advocates for OTC options.

  • Those include recent switches like the antihistamine Claritin-D, the Plan B emergency contraceptive and the decongestant Mucinex D.

Worth noting: OTC purchases have historically not been reimbursable through insurance plans — meaning people who avoided visiting the doctor might've been saving the health care system from absorbing the costs of their treatment.

  • But the advent of health savings accounts (HSAs) is enabling some consumers to get reimbursed for products and services they previously would've had to pay for on their own, Udow-Phillips notes.

The other side: "A lot of [the opposition] has come from the physician lobby that has wanted to make sure you're not missing something critical," Udow-Phillips says.

  • The American Association of Orthodontists has been engaged in a high-stakes legal battle with SmileDirectClub over the company's system of allowing people to get their teeth straightened without ever visiting an office.
  • The American Academy of Audiology provides resources on OTC hearing aids but also says people concerned about hearing loss should schedule a hearing test with an audiologist — a process consumers are now allowed to avoid.

💭 Nathan's thought bubble: Cost savings are at a premium with health care. But there's also no replacement for trained physicians.

  • "There are all these advantages, but there is a downside of not getting care under the supervision of a medical professional," Udow-Phillips says.
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