January 15, 2017

Now Hear This

Kaiser Health News—which by the way has some of the most interesting and important articles relevant to the older population in its “aging” section, and additional interesting and important articles in its “Medicare” section—ran an encouraging piece this week about hearing aids. I blogged about hearing aids almost exactly a year ago, when the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued a report recommending, among other approaches, deregulating over the counter hearing aids. It looks as though this may actually become a reality.

The concern, as with OTC medications, is that the products available without a prescription will be ineffective, if effective that they will be misused, and if misused that they will lead to the substitution of bad technology for good technology. But the smart phone, smart machine era has ushered in the possibility that people could select a high quality device for themselves without a physician or audiologist as an intermediary. It may soon be possible to connect a device inconspicuously inserted into the ear to a tablet, smart phone, or television. The device may communicate directly with a digital assistant such as Siri or Alexa. And consumers may be able to test their own hearing and determine just what kind of device would serve them best using a cell phone app or online program.

There’s much yet to figure out as the boundary between personal sound amplification devices (unregulated) and hearing aids (regulated) becomes increasingly fuzzy. Standards governing their design are in the works. But Senators Charles Grassley (R) and Elizabeth Warren (D) are planning to introduce a bill soon that would allow the sale of OTC devices. How very fitting: a bipartisan effort to allow us to hear each other better.

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