Following FDA decision on over-the-counter hearing aids, UWM professor aims to make own contribution

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- A UW-Milwaukee professor hopes to make a difference with a hearing aid device following the Food and Drug Administration's announcement to make over-the-counter hearing aids available later this year.

The FDA made the decision on the rule in early Aug. after a law to allow over-the-counter hearing aids was passed by Congress in 2017. The devices will be targeted at adults with mild to moderate hearing loss. Severe cases are still recommended to be looked at by a specialist.

Experts at UW-Milwaukee said this policy will have a major impact for devices, which are expensive, often not covered by insurance and require doctors who may not be readily available depending on one's location.

According to the National Institute of Deafness and other communication disorders, only one in six Americans who could benefit from hearing aids use them.

"With this new FDA guideline I would expect that more people would start using the devices because this dramatically lowers the cost and removes the barrier to access to audiologists," Dr. Yi Hu told CBS 58.

Hu is an associate professor of electrical engineering at UWM and gained an interest in the field of hearing aid devices partly because of his desire to help his family.

"My own grandfather complained about his hearing loss issues," Hu explained.

His grandfather lived in a rural area of China with little access to audiologists and unable to overcome the hurdle of the high costs of hearing aids.

Now, Hu is working on his own prototype hearing aid he hopes to bring to mass market by 2023.

The device would be paired up with an app and uses Bluetooth technology. It would be able to help the user adjust the device to their specific hearing loss needs or environments, in theory, eliminating the need for an audiologist if one were not readily available.

"Without having to go to an audiologist or having to do any kind of complicated configurations, they can just use the app to directly live fit based on that environment," explained Santhosh Yegnaraman, a PhD candidate at UWM and a member of Hu's team.

While Hu and his team are hoping for success with their device, they also recognize the benefits of the overall greater availability of hearing aid devices coming soon thanks to the FDA announcement.

"I really hope that [with] the FDA opening the door, the 23 million American adults who could benefit from hearing aids will be able to use them," Hu said.

Consumers can expect over-the-counter hearing aids to be available at retail and drug stores by mid-October, according to the FDA.

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