Oct 18, 2022 - Health

Getting hearing aids just got easier, faster and cheaper

Sony Electronics' CRE-E10 self-fitting OTC hearing aids.

Sony's CRE-E10 self-fitting OTC hearing aids. Photo: Courtesy of Sony

Hearing aids can now be sold over the counter in the U.S., a major change that stands to improve access and innovation — though isn't without some risk.

Why it matters: Historically, getting hearing aids can be a time-intensive and sometimes costly process, involving trips to the doctor's office that aren't always covered by insurance. (Medicare, for instance, doesn't cover hearing aids or fitting exams.)

  • About 15% of American adults report at least some hearing trouble, per the National Institutes of Health. Nearly 30 million "could benefit from using hearing aids."

What's happening: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced the rule change back in August, but it didn't take effect until this week.

  • Now, people with mild to moderate hearing issues can buy hearing aids without first seeing their doctor, getting a prescription or being fitted by a professional.
  • The move could save people nearly $3,000, the White House says.

The rule changes are already sparking innovation in the space. Sony, for example, recently unveiled a pair of high-tech hearing aids with features similar to what's found in the company's well-reviewed headsets and earbuds.

  • They can sync with a smartphone app via Bluetooth so users can customize certain settings, or perform a "self-fit."

Retailers nationwide are getting in on the action.

  • Walmart, CVS, Walgreens, Best Buy and others are all selling OTC hearing aids, with prices ranging from about $200 to $1,000 and up.

Yes, but: Some are concerned that if people get hearing aids without first consulting an audiologist, they might not get the exact device or treatment they need.

  • "I hate to use the words 'buyer beware,' so instead it's 'buyer be educated' about what you're doing, what your needs are," Kate Carr, president of the trade group Hearing Industries Association, told NPR.
  • Plus, some OTC devices still carry a hefty price tag — Sony's two offerings, for example, go for $999 and $1,299.

Our thought bubble: Obviously you want people to get the care they need — but having watched many an older relative struggle to hear at family shindigs because they refused to go through the rigamarole of getting hearing aids, anything that makes that process easier is probably for the best.

What's next: The new rule essentially created a new marketplace overnight, and it'll take time for retailers and manufacturers to see what works and what doesn't.

  • If this winds up being a profitable market, expect a wider variety of options — and potentially lower prices — down the road.

The big picture: That companies like Sony are dropping sleek, earbud-style options could further reduce the stigma surrounding hearing aids — if they look like everyday earbuds, wearers will blend right in.

Go deeper: The DIY health economy expands with OTC hearing aids

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