It has been one year since the FDA's historic over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aid guidelines were published. Before the October 2022 guidelines, hearing aid purchases required a visit to a hearing professional. Finally, years of bi-partisan advocacy and multiple presidential mandates resulted in a new class of devices available without a doctor's visit. Most OTC devices are self-fit using a smartphone app.
In the eyes of my two-year-old, one year is an eternity, but in the world of health and technology, it's just not that long.
Still, a lot has happened. Since the FDA released its guidelines, iconic brands like Bose, Jabra, and Sony have released hearing aids at affordable prices. It's hard to imagine a more significant departure from the big and beige legacy that hearing tech has held.
Amidst the rise of new hearing aid options, Best Buy has fashioned itself as a home to over-the-counter innovators. The national retailer now carries every major hearing brand, including category leaders like Lexie B2 Powered by Bose and Jabra Enhance Plus.
Have OTC Hearing Aids Worked?
If you ask industry insiders, they might tell you that over-the-counter hearing aids have delivered underwhelming sales results. Most research indicates that over-the-counter hearing aids accounted for around 2% of total sales in the last year. ASHA released research that some have hailed as an early signal that OTC is a bust.
Those early takes miss the point. A quick look at Google Trends data reveals that online hearing aid research has increased by more than 65% in the last year vs the previous five years.
That increase in awareness is no surprise when you consider that top media outlets like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post have featured hearing aids as a marquee story. We may be one year into the OTC hearing aid era, but it's clear that the move has done at least one thing very well. Drive the conversation.
For Best Buy and other hearing aid retailers, national awareness turns into foot traffic and opportunities to offer customers hands-on exposure to hearing aids that are often predominantly online or behind closed clinic doors. Best Buy now carries hearing aids in over 600 stores nationwide.
Stigma and Awareness
The uptick in conversation is important for other reasons as well. Mass media coverage signals to those with hearing loss, young and old, that hearing health is far from a fringe issue. More than 10% of Americans face hearing loss daily.
The tone shift of hearing health stories has also been remarkable. When the Wall Street Journal covered the topic, their headline read, "Wait. Are hearing aids cool now?". The New York Times focused on the changing demographics of hearing aid wearers and discussed emerging tech like Bluetooth streaming.
Even Apple has felt compelled to weigh in on hearing health with comments about their growing suite of AirPod features to support the hearing loss community.
So yes, if you look at earnings, reports, and sales stats to determine the impact of over-the-counter hearing aids, you might be tempted to write off the new category as a side-show. But that view is shortsighted. The FDA's move shook up the category, brought new innovators into the space, drove billions of press impressions, and created a brand new kind of retail experience at destinations like Best Buy. Not bad for 52 weeks.
But wait, are over-the-counter hearing aids any good in 2023?
The simple answer is yes if you know where to look. Lexie B2 Powered by Bose gets rave reviews and has less than half the industry average return rate. Sennheiser's new All Day Clear hearing aids have sound quality comparable to hearing aids three times the price.
Over-the-counter hearing aids have indeed not supplanted prescription devices as premium leaders. Still, they have created a quality starting point for anyone looking for a lower price or a more self-directed process.
So, was the addition of over-the-counter hearing aids a success or failure? It's probably too early to tell, but one thing is clear: the power dynamics of hearing health, as with many other health categories, are shifting in favor of consumers.
That shift means consumers need to do more research and get more thoughtful about the tech they purchase, but it also means access and agency for hearing aid wearers in a way that we haven't previously seen.
It has been one year, but we are just getting started.