OTC hearings aids at a pharmacy near you: Two experts weigh in
In October 2022, the FDA’s ruling on over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids went into effect, allowing the sale of hearing aids without a prescription. This ruling is intended to make hearing aids more accessible and affordable.
Now that hearing aids are available over the counter, you may be thinking of trying them. But what if you need assistance selecting or adjusting OTC hearing aids? Can your pharmacist help?
As with other OTC products, pharmacists can help you compare the features of different OTC hearing aids. They may also help determine if it would be better for you to see an audiologist. For device troubleshooting, pharmacists will likely connect you with the hearing aid manufacturer for assistance.
“The role of the pharmacist in OTC hearing aids is no different than it is in any other OTC product—they help to ensure the safe, appropriate, and effective use of the product, and OTC hearing aids will be another example of this,” says Dr. Elaine Mormer, PhD, CCC-A, professor in the Department of Communication Science and Disorders at the University of Pittsburgh. Mormer is also a licensed audiologist who has spent much of her career fitting patients for hearing aids and supporting those with hearing loss through other forms of rehabilitation.
“This is a great initiative for public health,” says Dr. Lucas Berenbrok, PharmD, MS, BCACP, associate professor of Pharmacy and Therapeutics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy. “By including pharmacists in the process of OTC hearing aids, it greatly expands the accessibility of the product.”
Pharmacies will carry OTC hearing aids
Hearing loss statistics show that about 48 million Americans have some degree of hearing loss, with the average person waiting seven years before seeking support. Only 1 in 5 people who would benefit from hearing aids actually use them, according to the Hearing Loss Association of America, indicating a need for increased access to hearing care in America, experts say.
Enter OTC hearing aids and pharmacies that sell them. This pairing helps boost access and lowers cost. Pharmacies generally have convenient hours and locations, with approximately 90% of Americans living within five miles of a pharmacy.
“There are only about 13,000 audiologists nationwide. With [48 million] people experiencing some level of hearing loss in this country, it is very challenging for those 13,000 experts to help everyone,” Berenbrok said. “With about 62,000 community pharmacies in the United States, pharmacists can collaborate with audiologists to expand accessibility to hearing care through OTC hearing aids.”
If you're hesitant about the idea, keep in mind that pharmacists already do much more than dispense medications. Most pharmacists have doctorate degrees and routinely provide immunizations and other clinical services. For example, nearly 300 million vaccine doses have been administered by pharmacies as part of the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program for COVID-19 Vaccination.
Collaboration with hearing care experts
Considering the accessibility of pharmacies and unmet needs of people with hearing loss, pharmacists are well-positioned to help people seek OTC hearing aids—or, when needed, connect them to a local hearing care provider, such as a licensed audiologist or hearing instrument specialist.
Pharmacists will not replace these hearing experts, Mormer said. Instead, she explains, “The creation of collaborative working relationships between audiologists and pharmacists will establish a referral system to potentially improve access to care.” As with other OTC products, she says, “Pharmacists can help to identify good candidates for OTC hearing aids.”
While this is still a new area of healthcare, Berenbrok and Mormer point out that a continuing education course for pharmacists is now available, with the goal of helping them provide effective hearing aid counseling and education. The two have been studying the issue since 2017 and developed the course, which is affirmed by the American Academy of Audiology and includes input from healthcare experts and patients.
“Professional collaboration between pharmacists and audiologists will ensure patients can obtain the correct devices and receive the best care for their hearing needs," Berenbrok said.
While a pharmacist can be helpful as your browse OTC hearing aids, keep in mind that some people with hearing loss should not get an OTC hearing aid and instead seek professional help at a hearing aid clinic.