Over-the-Counter Hearing Instruments – The End of the World as We Know It?

By Terry Ross, Director of Sales, North America, Auditdata LLC

Anytime traditional markets are challenged by new technology, there is typically an immediate dismissive and negative reaction by those directly affected, and so it was from audiologists to the passage of the OTC Act of 2017. After all, the very fabric of the business, the income stream and the profession was being challenged by this legislation.

An Act to Encourage Consumers’ Freedom of Choice

First let’s lay the foundation for what is occurring in the hearing care market with respect to this new legislation in the U.S.  The movement towards “better access” for consumers really gained momentum in October of 2015, when the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology delivered its findings with the ultimate goal of lowering the cost of hearing aids, encouraging more choice and options for consumers, and to inspire technological innovations with regards to amplification. 

OTC hearing aids

Their report “Aging America & Hearing Loss: Imperative of Improved Technologies” opened the door to the creation of a new category of hearing aids (PSAP’S) that could be obtained virtually anywhere without any professional intervention.

Diverse Reactions from Audiology Organizations

Of course, key industry groups and the general audiology community bristled with this recommendation.  HIA (Hearing Industries Association) who represents the wholesale hearing aid manufacturers was strongly opposed to any OTC solutions while ADA, (Academy of Doctors of Audiology) supported the recommendation, but with stipulations.

Not surprisingly, the Consumer Electronics Association and HLAA (Hearing Loss Association of America), a consumer advocacy group for the hearing impaired population, were quite supportive of the report, although HLAA still supports seeing a professional hearing healthcare provider or physician as a part of good healthcare practices.  This dichotomy of positions, adds to the disruptive element in the hearing care community today.

In March of 2017, the “Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017” was passed.  This sets into motion several actions from the Secretary of Health and Human Services to establish assurances of safety, limits on device output, labeling requirements, and other limitations for sales on site, by mail or over the internet.

As this journey unfolds, the market is experiencing transitional panic, as a generation of professionals are selling off to the big 6 manufacturers.  It is anticipated that until there are clear indicators of recalibration and new strategies at the retail level.

What Will be the Impact for Audiology?

Today, the market for older adults is the largest in history.  Audiologists in some 14,000 locations in the U.S. are trying to serve a market of nearly 50 million potential customers today and expected to grow to 98 million by 2060.  Older adults are also working longer in the labor force, living longer and have more assets than previous generations.  With all of these driving factors, the Audiology profession is definitely not going away – if anything, we will probably experience growth, as a more technically savvy consumer demands hearing solutions to improve lifestyle.

Many believe that OTC’s, like reading glasses, are an “entry level” for those with hearing loss.  The reality is that audiologists can still thrive in light of the OTC movement. Why?

  • Fit and cosmetics will be less than optimal for an OTC device.
  • OTC’s will not specifically address individual loss and anatomy effectively.
  • People will buy for “comfort” instead of efficacy
  • Consumers will not know how well the device is working in their ear
  • Cerumen management will be ignored as will medical etiologies.
  • Any loss above a mild to moderate loss will not be addressed by OTC’s
  • Unregulated output can actually damage residual hearing capability
  • Purchasing OTC’s will ignore rehabilitation and cognitive processes
  • Improper fittings can lead to more issues with dementia
  • Power junkies may do further damage using OTC’s

Audiology is Necessary as Balance for the OTC Hearing Aids

The main focus of the OTC act is to increase access for more people to seek hearing help and to reduce the cost of hearing care for the vulnerable and price-sensitive target consumer.  Technology will continue to evolve, and marketing will adjust, just as it does in any industry today. 

The Audiology profession will correct and calibrate to the changes ahead – the profession won’t disappear.