Buyer Beware: The Danger of Buying Hearing Aids Over the Internet

I was having a conversation with a man at the gym the other day, and the talk turned to hearing aids. The man, in his 70s, admitted he was hard of hearing, but was reluctant to get hearing aids because he found them so expensive.

He told me that if he does get a new hearing device, he’ll get it over the Internet.

“I can get hearing aids on the ‘Net for a thousand bucks,” Graham says. “Why should I pay a few thousand dollars for them?”

For many consumers, a deal like that is pretty hard to pass up. They see hearing aids as nothing more than a little piece of hardware and software, much like a Smartphone.

What’s the harm in buying them over the Internet?

Aids Bought on the Net are Unregulated

According to Health Canada, all medical devices in Canada must meet the requirements of the Canadian Medical Devices Regulations. This helps make sure that the products are safe and effective when used as directed. Hearing aids are among the more than 1,800 generic types of medical devices on the Canadian market intended to diagnose, treat, manage or prevent disease and other conditions.

“In general, you should use medical devices as part of an overall approach to health that is supervised by a doctor or other health professional,” according to Health Canada’s website. “Medical devices can help you maintain and improve your health, but they are not intended to replace professional care.”

Buying online presents some significant risks to the public, according to Health Canada. If a consumer buys from a website that is not trustworthy, the following things could happen:

  • The device probably doesn’t meet the Health Canada requirements for safety, effectiveness, and quality.
  • The product could have been recalled because of safety concerns.
  • The device might be counterfeit, a lower quality, or falsely labeled to make you think it is of higher quality.
  • If it’s second-hand, you may get a product that is faulty or missing parts, and may come with no warranty or instructions. There may also be cleanliness issues.
  • The sale of licensed devices like hearing aids must be fitted. There is no fitting that accompanies an aid bought on the Internet. 
  • There is also a risk that some website operators may cheat you out of your money while you get nothing in return.

It’s All About Service

Harvey Abrams, Starkey’s chief audiologist, says that often the lure of the Internet and “good deals” is too attractive for people to pass up. But often, you get what you pay for.

“Given the ubiquitous nature of online shopping, you might ask yourself if it’s a smart move to bypass the hearing professional and save money by purchasing your hearing aids online,” he writes in his consumer blog. “The problem with this approach is that it assumes that all you need to do is put those purchased hearing aids in your ears and your hearing problems will be solved. That’s like buying an orthodontic appliance online and expecting our teeth to straighten out by simply putting it in your mouth.”

Abrams suggests consumers ask some important questions.

Do you know what hearing aid is best for you? What are you going to do with them when they arrive in your mailbox? What will you do when the hearing aids need adjustment? What if they don’t provide you with the help you are expecting?

“In fact, they won’t be able to answer any of these questions…The management of the needs of individuals with hearing loss which includes the appropriate selection and fitting of today’s complex hearing instruments requires extensive education and training. Hearing care professionals are required to be licensed. Their training and experience is designed to ensure that the treatment plan they propose for you is based on a comprehensive evaluation of your hearing system and your  ommunications needs.”

Abrams also suggests the consumer ponder what they can expect from their hearing care professional that they wouldn’t be able to get through an online purchase. Here’s his answers:

  • A patient-focused “income” measure: Hearing professionals have a number of well-validated and researched questionnaires to help determine a patient’s needs.
  • Meaningful clinical tests: The majority of patients with hearing loss complain of problems understanding conversations in noise. A hearing professional will test the patient’s ability to understand speech in noise backgrounds in addition to other measure of the hearing system.
  • Patient-specific treatment goals. Hearing professionals identify what a patient wants to achieve with their treatment, such as what they will be able to do that they could do without hearing aids.
  • Selection of style and features based on treatment goals. Two patients with the same audiogram can have dramatically different auditory processing abilities, communications requirements and treatment goals.
  • Verification of hearing aid settings. Probe microphone measures ensure that the patient will be able to hear those sounds and contribute to speech understanding while ensuring that loud sounds aren’t uncomfortable for them.
  • Validation of hearing aid fitting. The hearing professionals will be able to assess how well the device meets the expectations of the user.
  • Use of hearing assistive technology. Sometimes a hearing aid is not enough. A professional will be able to help improve the patient experience by asking them to consider the use of remote microphones and other assistive technologies.
  • Rehabilitative services. If the patient continues to experience communications problems, the hearing professional can use rehabilitation tools to optimize the benefits of hearing aids.

About the Author

Rose Simpson is an Ottawa writer and editor whose work focuses on consumer health and safety and medical professional development. She is the former editor of Audio Infos Canada and Canadian Psychiatry Aujourd'hui, and was a speechwriter for the federal and Ontario ministers of health.