That makes return policies important. The F.D.A. disappointed consumer advocates by not mandating them, leaving it to states, manufacturers and retailers to set their own. But the agency did require that return policies be clearly specified on the package. Since a user’s brain can take several weeks to adapt to amplified sound, consumers should look for at least a 30-day return policy.
It remains to be seen how audiologists will adapt. For many, hearing-aid sales have been their primary source of income. How readily will they alter their practices to mainly provide testing, education, counseling and support, while customers purchase devices over the counter?
Some users will feel comfortable self-fitting their new aids using online tools, but others will want guidance on choosing, fitting and learning to live with their devices. They may need help as problems arise, such as ear wax blockage and device repair. And since hearing aids have a three- to five-year life span, Dr. Lin said, users will eventually need to go through the process again, perhaps several times.
Some companies selling directly to consumers, like Eargo, provide extensive support services remotely, but will that satisfy most older buyers? Dr. Lin said he hoped that “a lot of audiologists will see patients, spend time testing and counseling and educating them, and not have to sell them a $4,000 device.”
To help consumers navigate the new terrain, the Hearing Loss Association of America has published a tip sheet. Wirecutter has published a useful guide to over-the-counter hearing aids and updates it frequently. (Wirecutter is a product recommendation service owned by The New York Times Company.) Hearing Tracker, a website published by the audiologist Abram Bailey, will assess over-the-counter devices as well.
Last month, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health created HearingNumber.org to help people determine their level of hearing loss and learn about treatment options. For now, its assessment tool requires an Apple smartphone or tablet.
But as with almost everything else involved with this expected transformation, that will change in the next few months, Dr. Lin said. Give it a little time.