Professor Jerry Punch of the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders at Michigan State University (MSU), and Susanna Love Callaway, an international student from Denmark, came to this conclusion after subjecting 11 over-the-counter hearing aids to the same test protocol as traditional hearing aids. The best hearing aids are not the over the counter hearing aids
Writing about their research in the American Journal of Audiology, the researchers highlighted the fact that most consumers would have only partial insurance coverage for hearing aids, leading to out-of-pocket expenses ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars.
The researchers also pointed out that low-cost options were typically marketed on the Internet and in mail-order magazines as listening devices, often for bird watchers or deer hunters.
"These low-cost amplifying devices can look tempting to individuals with hearing impairment because of the significant cost differences. But our research found that the low-cost aids generally don't meet the fitting requirements to help a hearing-impaired person and could potentially damage a person's hearing," Punch said.
Telling about the significance of the research for consumers, Callaway said: "Aside from being of extremely poor quality, very low-cost hearing aids - those under 100 dollars - have the potential to damage your hearing because they send very loud sounds into the ear. The study's mid-range hearing aids (100 to 500 dollars) were of higher quality and were not considered a safety hazard."
The authors said that the mid-range hearing aids often controlled the amount of sound sent into the ear better.
They, however, added that without a precise and knowledge-based fitting of the device by an audiologist, consumers could expect to experience hit-or-miss success.
Punch said: "Based on the research, the best advice for consumers is to talk to an audiologist. Because hearing aids have complex technical features, they need to be fitted and customized to the individual."
The study measured how well the electronic features of the devices could compensate for commonly occurring types of hearing loss, employing methods that audiologists use to fit conventional hearing aids - a process audiologists call prescriptive fitting.
The researchers found that only a few of the aids studied met the basic fitting requirements, and, for the few that did, that was true only for a specific degree of hearing loss.
"Currently, more than 32 million people have a hearing impairment, yet only about 25 percent of those use hearing aids. Meanwhile, the aging population is growing - and hearing loss becomes more common as we become older," Punch said.
He suggested that people with hearing loss better tried to gain more and more information about hearing aids.