How changing technology and government policy can help

From Shira Ovide, The New York Times Company

Let’s talk about relatively simple technologies and a change in government policy that could spark more innovation for Americans with hearing difficulties.

I’ve spoken to audiologists, consumer advocates, and tech companies about what could revolutionize our ears – hearing aids at a fraction of the cost and hassle of traditional devices.

This is how things are now: Hearing loss is a common and serious health problem and many people are reluctant or unable to afford to get traditional hearing aids. Nearly 38 million adults in the US report some degree of hearing loss, but only a minority of people who could benefit from hearing aids have ever used them.

Hearing aids typically cost thousands of dollars, require multiple visits to specialists, and often do not have health insurance. Untreated hearing loss is linked to cognitive decline, dementia, and other damage. Overcoming barriers to hearing care can greatly improve the health of Americans.

The federal government is ready to help. Congress in 2017 passed laws that would allow anyone to purchase Food and Drug Administration-approved hearing aids without a prescription from an audiologist. The FDA has missed a deadline for the publication of draft guidelines for this new category of over-the-counter hearing aids.

Experts told me that if the FDA moves forward, it will likely lead to new products and ideas to change hearing aids the way we know them.

Imagine Apple, Bose, or any other consumer electronics company making hearing aids more stylish and relatively affordable – and people trust the devices to be FDA-approved. Bose told me it was over-the-counter hearing aid technology.

Barbara Kelley, executive director of the Hearing Loss Association of America, an advocacy group, told me that she can’t wait to get a more affordable and accessible hearing aid.

“I’m really excited that the market is opening up to see what we have and how people are reacting,” she said.

It is already possible to buy a hearing aid – which cannot be legally called a hearing aid – without a prescription. These devices, known as personal sound amplification products or PSAPs, vary significantly in quality from Excellent to Junk. But when you shop for them, you often can’t tell the difference.

(The Wall Street Journal also recently wrote about hearing aid technologies, including earbuds that can amplify soft sounds. Consumer Reports has a useful guide to hearing aids and PSAPs.)

Nicholas Reed, director of audiology at the Johns Hopkins Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health, told me that the FDA process should provide a pathway for the best PSAPs to be approved as official over-the-counter hearing aids. He expects new companies to enter the market as well.

You may doubt that any device you buy from CVS besides toilet paper could be a serious medical device. However, Reed’s research found that some hearing aids for $ 350 or less were almost as good as prescription hearing aids for people with mild to moderate hearing loss.