Why the sudden push for over-the-counter hearing devices?

Getty Images

Hearing loss is a medical issue and not a consumer electronics opportunity.Since the fall of 2015, I have witnessed a giant political machine exert a coordinated effort through the streets of our nation’s capital to create a new over-the-counter (OTC) delivery channel for hearing aids. Lobbying efforts driven by consumer electronics companies, are focused on increased revenue and corporate profits rather than providing better hearing, service, and care for people with hearing loss.

{mosads}Today’s professionally fitted hearing aids incorporate major advances in digital and acoustic technology based on decades of research and development with professional and patient input. Hearing aid technology utilizes advanced digital signal processing to meet the needs of the most complex hearing losses and the most demanding listening environments.


Advanced algorithms and designs for noise management, feedback cancellation, sophisticated directional microphone technology, connectivity to Bluetooth phones as well as water, sweat and dust resistance. This generation of hearing aids are essentially a mini computer in your ear capable of learning your listening preferences, and correcting for adverse acoustical conditions. Patients have more choices than ever before on product quality and cost.

There are numerous registered hearing aid manufacturers in the Unites States, and many more located around the world. With the recent spotlight on the Over The Counter Bill of 2017, some falsely accuse “the big six” hearing aid manufacturers of trying to stifle innovation and competition from entering the marketplace. I believe competition is the cornerstone of capitalism and propels each manufacturer to produce the best product possible — supporting increased access and affordability of hearing aids. 

Among those currently using quality hearing instruments selected, fitted and maintained by qualified hearing professionals, audiologists or hearing instrument specialists, there is a 91 percent satisfaction rate. A hearing aid fitting is one-third product and two-thirds process. The latter includes hearing aid model selection, physical fitting to the user’s unique ear anatomy, response programming taking into account both the type and degree of hearing loss as well as the user’s lifestyle communication needs, ongoing adjustments based on listener experiences, maintenance, and follow-up on a device subject to internal and external environmental influences. 

The OTC bill naively suggests that hearing-impaired individuals can order an inexpensive OTC hearing aid substitute through the internet, buy it off a shelf at a local drugstore or at a consumer electronics store, and expect a satisfactory user experience devoid of any professional input and follow-up. 

Like a thumb print, every ear and hearing loss is unique. The greater the degree of hearing loss, (moderate, severe and profound), the greater the need for the services of a hearing professional to properly evaluate the hearing impairment, select the proper hearing aid for their loss, and provide patient education, care, counseling and service. Hearing loss correction with hearing aids is successful when the qualified professional human touch is brought into the process, not the cash register.

 It is estimated close to 40 million people have hearing loss. Two-thirds are within the mild category of hearing loss. Less than 10 percent of people with a mild hearing loss take any action to correct their problem. If an OTC hearing aid distribution channel is to exist, with proper regulatory and manufacturing standards, it should be limited to products designed to assist only individuals with mild hearing loss.

The immediate issue is not about hearing aid manufacturers trying to protect individual interests. It is about understanding what the hearing-impaired patient needs better than consumer electronics companies. 

Hearing loss is one of the largest growing health problems for people. In fact, one out of six teenagers have irreversible hearing loss due to exposure to damaging sound levels while listening to music through consumer electronics audio devices.  First, consumer electronic companies set record profits by selling devices that contribute to hearing loss and now they see a way to make even more money by pretending to fix it. 

Hearing loss is a medical issue, not a consumer electronics opportunity.

Brandon Sawalich is the president of Starkey Hearing Technologies and Chairman of the Hearing Industries Association (HIA). 

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

See all Hill.TV See all Video