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Lucas Berenbrok, University of Pittsburgh and Elaine Mormer, University of Pittsburgh

(THE CONVERSATION) Over-the-counter hearing aids may soon hit community drugstore shelves nationwide.

We are a pharmacist and audiologist studying potential ways to distribute and manage over-the-counter hearing aids. In a market dominated by only a handful of manufacturers, hearing aids available without a prescription will be more accessible to the approximately 28.8 million American adults who could benefit from their use.

A new class of hearing aids

A hearing aid is a device worn around the ear that makes desired sounds more audible to people who are hard of hearing. Hearing aids include a microphone, amplifier and miniature speaker to make sounds louder. Traditionally, these devices were only accessible by hearing care professionals or licensed audiologists.

In 2017, the FDA Reauthorization Act designated a new class of hearing aids that will be available over the counter to increase the accessibility and affordability of hearing aids for American adults. These hearing aids can be purchased without medical evaluation by a doctor or fitting by an audiologist. However, over-the-counter hearing aids are only intended for adults who think they have mild to moderate hearing loss.

Implementation of these regulations is overdue by a year, in large part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In July 2021, President Joe Biden asked the US Department of Health and Human Services to release proposed rules within 120 days on how over-the-counter hearing aids can be marketed and sold.

It is not yet clear how community pharmacies will sell these new devices, but the law will undoubtedly increase public access to hearing aids. On the one hand, pharmacies are more accessible to Americans than audiology offices. Audiologists tend to be located in metropolitan areas with higher incomes, younger populations, and greater insurance coverage, with a smaller proportion of people most in need of hearing aids, i.e. the elderly. In contrast, 90% of Americans live within 5 miles of one of the country’s more than 60,000 community pharmacies.

It will also allow hearing aids to get into patients’ ears more quickly. It usually takes an average of four to five years after people recognize their hearing loss to see a health care provider, and sometimes an additional six years to get a hearing aid. With this new law, people will be able to purchase OTC hearing aids as soon as they become aware of their hearing difficulties.

Over-the-counter hearing aids will provide a do-it-yourself approach to treating hearing loss. For example, a smartphone app can be used to guide users on how to self-measure and self-adjust the hearing aid to best fit their ear. Traditional hearing aids require a professionally administered hearing test and specifications that can allow for a more personalized fit.

Increased access at lower cost

Only 3.7% of people who say they have hearing difficulties have hearing aids. In addition to increasing accessibility, the 2017 federal law also intends to make hearing aids more affordable.

Traditional hearing aids cost on average over $ 5,000 per pair, while over-the-counter hearing aids will likely cost less than $ 1,000. Fees and services associated with hearing aids, including the fitting process, which takes an average of 2.5 audiology visits, are generally not covered by Medicare, Medicaid, or private insurers. At prices similar to monthly car loan payments, hearing health care services are often exclusive to people who can afford high personal expenses.

There are also racial disparities in the use of hearing aids. Although black Americans are more likely to have had a recent hearing test, they are less likely to use hearing aids regularly than white seniors. Such disparities can have potential negative consequences for health and quality of life, including a higher risk of cognitive impairment, dementia and falls, as well as social isolation, loneliness and depression.

The pharmacist’s role in adopting over-the-counter hearing aids

Although over-the-counter hearing aids do not require consultation with a healthcare professional, pharmacists are expected to play an important role in ensuring their safe and effective use.

Among the most accessible types of health care providers, community pharmacists are trained to identify, prevent, and resolve medication problems. Pharmacists have also a long history of helping patients purchase medical devices and equipment such as blood glucose monitors for diabetes tests and blood pressure monitors for hypertension at their local pharmacy.

It is likely that community pharmacists will soon help patients choose and purchase over-the-counter hearing aids, and will refer them to audiologists and doctors for additional screening, treatment and care, if needed. They can also follow up with patients to make sure the device is working as expected. To prepare pharmacists for this new role, the University of Pittsburgh developed the first online program to teach pharmacists and pharmacy technicians how to help patients safely choose over-the-counter hearing aids.

By providing a cheaper and more easily accessible option, over-the-counter hearing aids have the potential to overcome significant barriers to hearing aid adoption and use.

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This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/you-may-soon-be-able-to-buy-hearing-aids-over-the-counter-at-your-local-pharmacy-165159.

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