The price of hearing aids is so prohibitive for some people that they go without the amplification they need in everyday life. Many insurance companies do not provide hearing aid coverage for adults, leaving them to foot the entire bill themselves.
Due to concerns related to costs and stigma, a huge percentage of individuals with hearing challenges neglect to seek help for their condition, often for years. A 2012 report by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) noted the alarming rates of untreated hearing loss in the United States:
“Hearing loss is the third most prevalent chronic health condition facing older adults. Unfortunately, only 20% of those individuals who might benefit from treatment actually seek help. Most tend to delay treatment until they cannot communicate even in the best of listening situations. On average, hearing aid users wait over 10 years after their initial diagnosis to be fit with their first set of hearing aids.”
Bundled vs. Unbundled Hearing Services
When it comes to financing the cost of hearing care, purchasing bundled services can make a big difference.
Audiologists who offer bundles services typically include the following for a set rate:
- Initial hearing test
- Consultation to discuss results and treatment options
- Initial earmold fitting and amplification testing
- Follow-up hearing aid adjustments
- Warranty ranging from one to three years that typically offers a one-time replacement for lost or damaged hearing aids
Patients tend to prefer purchasing bundled services from an audiologist because they understand their hearing may change and their hearing aid will need occasional adjustments. With unbundled services, patients choose and pay for only the services they need.
This can help save money initially but could end up costing more overtime for people who choose not to include follow-up and repair in their upfront costs.
What Makes Hearing Aids So Expensive?
The level of technology used to create a set of hearing aids is the biggest factor in how much they will cost. As with many other types of technology, the price of hearing aids tends to decrease the longer new features have been available.
Hearing aids at the higher end of the price spectrum have features such as wireless capability and noise reduction circuitry. The features in lower-priced hearing aids are much less advanced. Fortunately, there are companies who are committed to providing high-quality digital hearing aids at a greatly reduced price compared to other companies.
Hearing aids last an average of eight years before requiring replacement. While the upfront cost is often a detriment, the cost is more reasonable when patients divide it by the number of years the hearing aid lasts. Batteries for hearing aids should also factor into the equation.
Patients must also consider that part of the amount they pay for hearing services and amplification covers the millions that go into testing each year to improve hearing aid performance and create more innovative solutions.
The Emergence of Hearable Devices for Mild to Moderate Hearing Loss
A basic definition of hearables is that they are smart earbuds. Some in the field of hearing technology also refer to hearables as a cross between traditional hearing aids and wireless earbuds. These lightweight and electronic in-ear devices cannot correct hearing loss, but they do provide personalized amplification.
According to Nuheara, a hearing device company from Western Australia, hearables differ from hearing aids in several important ways. One of their primary uses is to help people hear speech clearly in noisy, challenging environments.
Active noise and feedback cancellation enables users to control incoming sound to a level that feels comfortable for them. The specific term for hearables that provide personalized hearing amplification is hearing-enhancement earbuds or personal sound amplification products.
Manufacturers of hearing-enhancement earbuds have to be sure they do not represent themselves as traditional hearing aids. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will only allow companies to market hearing-enhancement earbuds as a product that offers hearing amplification in situations where listening may be challenging.
There are specific features of new hearing enhancement earbuds that enable users to hear conversations with better clarity in challenging environments:
“Active noise cancellation, feedback cancellation, directional microphones, etc, are other traditional hearing aid technologies that are now being made available in direct-to-consumer hearing-enhancement earbuds.”
Here are the primary parts of hearing-enhancement earbuds that help to amplify hearing:
- Microphone: The microphone processes incoming acoustical sounds from the environment and converts them to electrical signals that go to the sound processor.
- Sound processor: After the microphone transmits environmental acoustic sounds, the microphone converts them into a digital format. The sound processor amplifies digitally repressed sounds and converts them to analog signal before transmitting signals to the speaker.
- Speaker: Alternatively known as the receiver, the speaker creates and transmits sound waves that go into the ear and cause the eardrum to vibrate.
Hearable devices operate on batteries that require regular charging.
Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act
A piece of bipartisan legislation passed in 2017 originally provided the FDA with three years to develop and implement regulations regarding non-prescription hearing devices. The deadline passed in August 2020 with the FDA choosing not to revisit it due to COVID-19 concerns.
Several hearing professionals at the Mass Eye and Ear Clinic have written letters to the FDA expressing their concern with the delay. The group of hearing professionals who wrote the letter state that less than 30 percent of people who need hearing aids receive them due to cost considerations.
They also indicated that affordable and accessible hearing aid alternatives are even more crucial now with masking and social distancing requirements making it especially challenging for people with hearing loss to communicate.
Hearables manufacturers mainly sell their products to consumers online for now, through direct-to-consumer channels. Finalization of the 2017 Over-the-Counter Hearing Aid Act will open them up to make direct sales via retail outlets to increase accessibility even more.
Perhaps with more over-the-counter options available to consumers in the coming years, the rates of untreated hearing loss will decline as well.