Hearing Aids for the Masses

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On Tech is back from a spring break and the magnolia trees are in bloom outside On Tech headquarters (aka my New York apartment).

Today, let’s talk about a relatively simple technology and 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 hesitant or unable to afford to get traditional hearing aids. Nearly 38 million American adults 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 have no 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 other consumer electronics companies making hearing aids more stylish and relatively affordable. People who trust the devices have been reviewed by the FDA Bose told me they are working on 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 referred to as 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. Dr. 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.

Dr. Reed described the best lower-cost devices than the Hyundai’s hearing aid. (This was a compliment.) They aren’t flashy, but they get many people where they need to go safely and effectively. He also envisions FDA regulations creating the conditions for many more people to purchase hearing aids – both over-the-counter and prescription-only.

Over-the-counter hearing aids can’t help everyone, experts told me. And the traditional hearing aid industry has said that people are best served by custom devices with expert help.

On the luxury end of the spectrum, more technology is brewing too. A Silicon Valley start-up called Whisper has a novel monthly payment option for its hearing aids and says its software “learns” over time based on a person’s hearing impairment.

Healthcare in the US often feels like it is bogged down, and technology is usually not the solution. But with hearing aids, technology and a change in government policy could bring helpful health innovations.

Tip of the week

Don’t let strangers see all of your old texts and photos! Brian X. Chen, consumer technology columnist for the New York Times, offers advice on what to do before handing over your old phone.

At some point you will say goodbye to your smartphone. You can give it to a family member because you bought a new one, or you can trade it in at a retail store for credit towards an upgrade.

Either way, you should make sure that all data is erased from your device before handing it over.

First things first, make sure you have a backup of your data. Apple has instructions on how to secure iPhones and Google instructions for Androids on its website.

After completing this step, plug in the device and erase all data from it. For iPhones, follow Apple’s instructions to erase your data. For Android, the steps vary depending on the device manufacturer and operating system version. Look for a reset option in the Settings app.

And then you’re good to go.

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