Dr. Robyn Cox, U of M professor of audiology, offers some thoughts on her field and
the lack of “starter” hearing aid devices available for the general public at drug
stores. She said the FDA has recently been considering the over-the-counter hearing
aid issue. Cox received the Willard R. Sparks Eminent Faculty Award last spring, the
highest honor bestowed on a faculty member at the University of Memphis. She is director
of the U of M’s Hearing Aid Research Laboratory.
Dr. Cox, can you tell me exactly what the field of audiology is?
Audiology has a mission to help people cope with the problems that result from hearing
Can you give us a history of audiology?
The field of audiology is relatively new. It was established shortly after the end
of World War II and is thus about the same age as me. It is accurate to think of audiology
as a younger sibling of optometry. Both professions address quality of life issues.
Optometry deals with vision problems and audiology deals with hearing problems. Years
from now, optometry and audiology will operate as parallel professions, but audiology
has quite a long way to go to reach that point.
Dr. Robyn Cox
Who benefits from audiology?
Our patients range from babies to very old people, and their problems cover the gamut
of occasional slight hearing difficulty to complete deafness. My own interest is with
individuals who have acquired hearing problems as mature adults, those 50 years old
What are ways we can cope with hearing loss?
I bet you are well aware that, for most people, problems with close-up vision begin
in your 40s. But did you notice that the same kind of thing was true of your hearing?
If you are like me, when you were in your 40s or 50s, you began to notice that it
was getting a bit harder to have a conversation in a noisy place. This happens to
all of us and it is as normal as developing a need for reading glasses. Most of us
recognize that need and get ourselves our first reading glasses pretty quickly, usually
from Walgreens or a similar place. But we have more difficulty recognizing our hearing
problems and especially knowing what to do about them. For this reason, adults who
develop hearing problems typically wait about 10 years before they seek help. This
is a bad idea because you lose listening skills during that period and it is hard
to get them back.
If you start to notice hearing problems, what can you do?
There are actually two kinds of treatments available. One treatment involves learning
communication skills and strategies to maximize your ability to use the hearing you
do have. This type of treatment is fairly new, but is becoming more available and
can be quite useful. The other treatment is to purchase hearing aids. I know that
hearing aids tend to have a bad reputation and this used to be deserved, but it is
mostly unfounded now. The development of “digital everything” has allowed tremendous
improvements in appearance and function of hearing aids, but often folks are not sure
that their hearing has really become bad enough to justify the time and expense of
prescription hearing aids. So the ideal thing would be this: When you begin to notice
that you are developing hearing problems, don’t wait.
Can you buy a hearing aid much like you can reading glasses at drug stores?
Actually, you cannot buy a starter hearing aid in drug stores and there is really
no good reason for this. The FDA must give approval to sell hearing aids this way,
and this approval has been blocked for reasons that, in my opinion, probably are not
in the best interests of the public. The fact is that the technology exists to put
quite sophisticated starter hearing aids in places like drug stores – a similar concept
to the reading glasses you can get there. These devices could serve the public good
by providing an accessible introduction to state-of-the-art amplified sound, and they
would be no more dangerous to the public than many other things sold in drug stores.
In the meantime, many hearing aids are being illegally marketed over the counter or
online simply by not calling them what they are. There is even an iPhone App that
is basically a hearing aid. You’ve seen those advertisements — they claim to sell
aids for hunting, bird watching or eavesdropping. The ones I have read about are incredibly
primitive by comparison with what could be available to help folks.
So here’s my message: It is time for high-technology, legal, over-the-counter, introductory
hearing aids. It can be done very well right now. But the impetus for this change
must come from consumer demand. I hope you will work with me on this. Let’s all encourage
the FDA to approve over-the-counter introductory hearing aids in this country instead
of waiting another 10 years.