Hearing Aids 101
Buying Hearing Aids
Don’t get scammed! Know your options when it comes to purchasing a hearing aid so you can make the right decision for your ears—and your wallet.
Hearing aids are prescriptive, individually programmed devices that require consistent qualified professional care and guidance in order to fully assist in the process of learning to hear again. As of this writing, the recommended way to purchase FDA-regulated hearing aids is with a prescription from a hearing care professional following an audiogram and hearing loss diagnosis. Hearing aids are available from most hearing care professionals at their clinics or offices, where they can be purchased on site. Alternately, you may decide to buy from a licensed independent distributor or retail outlet.
Hearing care professionals
Most hearing concerns can be addressed by two types of medical professionals—ear specialists and audiologists. According to the FDA, an ear specialist is:
“Any licensed physician who specializes in diseases of the ear and is medically trained to identify the symptoms of deafness in the context of the total health of the patient, and is qualified by special training to diagnose and treat hearing loss.”
You may have heard these practitioners referred to as ear, nose, and throat (or ENT) doctors or otolaryngologists. This is different from an audiologist, defined as:
“a medical professional trained to specialize in the evaluation and rehabilitation of individuals whose communication disorders center in whole or in part in the hearing function.”
Audiologists must have eight years of professional experience, including an undergraduate degree in Communication Sciences and four years of work relevant to the field of hearing. To receive certification, audiologists must earn a Doctor of Audiology (AuD) degree. Appointments with an audiologist typically consist of an assessment, some diagnostic tests, a conversation about treatment options, and a hearing aid fitting if necessary.
Many ENT doctors offer audiological care as a secondary service. Since ENT doctors typically specialize in surgery, audiologists and hearing instrument specialists (HIS) often work with ENT physicians to provide audiograms and diagnostics, and perform the actual hearing aid fitting.
Hearing instrument specialists
The staff of retail outlets and other independent hearing aid providers usually includes hearing instrument specialists (also called hearing aid specialists). They are trained to evaluate your hearing, fit your hearing aids, and provide follow-up services. However, unlike audiologists or ENTs, an HIS typically undergoes supervised training for six months to two years. Some may have graduated with a two-year college degree in this field, and most states require that an HIS be licensed. National certification is also available, although not required. In addition to helping you choose a hearing aid, these specialists can also make alterations and repairs to damaged or uncomfortable devices. You should expect to see an audiologist or ENT for full diagnosis of your hearing issues and any related conditions before going to an HIS to be fitted with hearing aids. However, many HISs work with these diagnosticians in the same office for single location convenience.
Recent consumer trends in hearing care have pushed many corporate chains to expand into the hearing aid market. Besides the obvious convenience offered by the wide availability of these chains, these outlets often provide free hearing tests and other special promotions. While this can be beneficial for cutting costs, many independent practices bought by these chains have had to cut back on professional staff and equipment, making their diagnostic and treatment services limited. Many retail stores have been criticized for this reason, with some arguing that this profit-driven and commodified approach to hearing care could mean lower quality services for those with hearing loss in comparison to what is offered by a private practitioner.
Several online retailers now offer hearing aids for sale at discounted prices. Anyone who might be considering the purchase of hearing aids from the internet is urged to research any online retail outlet thoroughly before making a purchase. Many websites provide you with a waiver that acknowledges it is your personal choice to avoid seeing a hearing care professional before ordering any device. Other websites, will schedule a fitting with a network audiologist to ensure that your device is best suited to your degree of hearing loss. The hearing aids you purchase are delivered to the audiologist who is paid a fitting fee by the online hearing aid provider.
While some FDA-approved hearing aids are available online without a prescription, many of these models are unregulated and could pose a threat to your hearing if improperly fitted or programmed. For many reasons, including the inability to receive a proper fitting, lack of follow-up visits for adjustments, or uncertainty that your purchase is from a legitimate source, think twice before purchasing from online venues promoting “cheap” hearing aids.
For more information on the potential dangers of purchasing an unregulated device, as well as information on recent legislation regarding the future of over-the-counter hearing aids, visit our page on Personal Sound Amplification Products (PSAPs).
Get your hearing tested before you buy
Schedule an appointment to get your hearing professionally assessed today. If hearing loss is diagnosed, use the information on this page to speak with your doctor about how to purchase the right hearing aid within your budget.