A Hearing Aid for Everyone

Research by Dr. Reed and other academics found that some nonprescription hearing devices on the market for $350 or less — they can’t legally be called hearing aids at the moment — were almost as good as prescription hearing aids for people with mild-to-moderate hearing loss. But hearing helpers in this category can be excellent or garbage, and it has been difficult to tell the difference.

The best listening devices might win approval as official over-the-counter hearing aids under the new F.D.A. rules. Experts say that more companies are waiting in the wings to offer new hearing products.

Bose announced in May a hearing device for $850, and the company told me that it wants to sell the product as an over-the-counter hearing aid when the F.D.A. finalizes its rules. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Apple is studying ways to make its AirPods, which are wireless headphones, into a device to enhance hearing.

More gadgets don’t necessarily mean that more people will be helped by them. But the new market opportunity that the government created may open the door to ideas we can’t yet imagine, wholesale changes in public awareness of hearing loss and choices for treating it.

Dr. Reed tells me that he envisions that sleeker-looking and easier-to-use hearing aids can help erode the stigma of hearing loss and that new device manufacturers will offer more consumer education about the problem.

He and other experts also imagine more pathways for hearing assistance in addition to devices. Maybe there will be the equivalent of Best Buy’s Geek Squad to help people fit hearing aids that they buy without a prescription. If many more people seek hearing help, that could also mean more opportunities for health specialists who might offer hearing tests and treatments, separate from the devices.

People with more serious hearing loss may not be helped by an over-the-counter hearing aid. And even at a fraction of the cost of traditional hearing aids, many people still won’t be able to afford them. Some drafts of the domestic policy plan being batted around Congress propose an expansion of Medicare coverage to include hearing aids.

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