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Sounds Good: Study Finds Some Drugstore Devices Work As Well As Prescription Hearing Aids

Hearing aid
Wikimedia Commons

Hearing aids are expensive, but there could be cheaper options. That's according to findings from a new study by Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Researchers there found that personal sound amplification products (PSAPs) sold at retail pharmacies and that cost about $350, work just as well as some of the $2,000 hearing aids prescribed by a doctor.

In the U.S., hearing aids are only available by prescription from a doctor. PSAPs, however, can be purchased at stores like CVS but they don't go through the same clinical trials that prescription hearing aids do.

Some hearing aids can cost up to $4,000. And while they are a medical necessity, Medicare — the insurance program for people over age 65 — does not pay for them.

That’s important because while two-thirds of people over the age of 70 have hearing loss, less than 20 percent of those people have a hearing aid, the study shows. And the cost could be a big factor.

Nicholas Reed was lead researcher on the Johns Hopkins study. He's also an audiologist who tests people for hearing loss every day.

“I noticed in the clinic that people who would come in — they need hearing aids, they want hearing aids, but they can’t afford hearing aids," said Reed. "And then they would leave.”

Reed said he wanted to know what to tell patients when they couldn’t afford the hearing aids he would prescribe them. So he and other researchers conducted a small study of 42 people, comparing how the most common and effective hearing aid he prescribed measured up against four of the PSAPs.

“I had no way of knowing what was a good device to recommend or what was a bad device to recommend," Reed said. "I didn’t even know if they worked or not.”

Though the results are not definitive — a much larger study of more people would be needed for more conclusive evidence — the results gave Reed and his patients a better idea of what could work.

The takeaway: those amplification products at your local drugstore work. Just not all of them.

“We found some of the more inexpensive ones make it worse because it’s like listening on a bad cell phone signal,” Reed said.

The more inexpensive PSAPs Reed mentioned retail for under $100. There's no standard these products have to meet. The Food and Drug Administration does not regulate them, and if they did, retailers likely wouldn't be able to sell PSAPs that make a person’s hearing worse.

The Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Actwas introduced in Congress earlier this year. It would allow the sale of and require the FDA to regulate some OTC hearing aids.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.