When I worked as an Audiologist in the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), I was often asked by my patients questions such as “Are private hearing aids any better than what you get free from the NHS?”, “Might I hear any better with a private hearing aid?”, and “Why are private hearing aids so expensive?” I always found such questions difficult to answer because I didn’t know for sure if private hearing aids were indeed any better, I didn’t know if the private technology at the time could help a person with hearing loss hear any better and I certainly had no idea as to why NHS hearing aids are free and a pair of private devices can set you back anything up to £6,000. Of course, I always opted for the “politician’s answer”!
I was, however, very proud of my NHS – often working in the local hospitals, I witnessed first-hand the enormous amount of hard graft, team-work, tax-payers’ money and impressive amount of training and education that goes into running this mammoth and precious system. A system that, despite being gargantuan in size, is actually quite fragile and teetering on collapse due to increasing demands and not enough money. As an NHS Audiologist, I felt proud of the fact we were able to offer good digital hearing aids completely free of charge and always made sure my patients did not assume NHS hearing aids were inferior in quality just because they were free (some UK NHS patients don’t know how lucky they are!). However, I also advised the patients who asked about private hearing aids to, by all means, see a private hearing aid audiologist, but to make sure they trial private hearing aids before they decide to buy and still stand by this advice.
I no longer work in the NHS and now work for a major hearing aid manufacturer that supplies both the public and private sectors. I now know a lot more about the technology that goes into hearing aids and train both NHS and private Audiologists and Hearing Aid Dispensers on our latest products and software. I am also now in a better position to answer those tricky questions posed by many an NHS patient all those years ago!
“Are private hearing aids any better than what you get free from the NHS?”
In some ways yes, but for some people it isn’t something that matters. Private hearing aids will most often offer more advanced technology, such as direct streaming via an iPhone (“Made For Apple”), several intelligent automated features, custom In-The-Ear styles and a multi-functional app, but you might not have any need for all these things. So, really, a private hearing aid with all the associated modern technology is only “better” if you can and will use all the extra options you are buying. Even just 10 years ago, there was a notable difference between NHS and private hearing aids, but today this gap is closing. Hearing aid manufacturers are now offering very similar spec in their NHS product as they do in their private product. That said, most NHS Audiology departments do not offer the more expensive custom-made In-The-Ear or Receiver-In-The-Ear devices.
“Might I hear any better with a private hearing aid?”
As previously mentioned, private hearing aids often come with extra smart technology, however much of this is more about convenience than actually hearing better. For example, being able to adjust your hearing aids’ volume or noise cancellation via a smartphone app, streaming music directly to your hearing aids via an iPhone or having a tiny custom-made Invisible-In-Canal device will not necessarily contribute to hearing better, but will certainly make hearing more convenient. How well you hear with a hearing aid is as much about its programming as it is about its technology. The NHS routinely fit hearing aids with a Real-Ear Measurement (REM), an objective test used to fine-tune the sound of the aid to your individual ear canal and verify the aid is amplifying accurately according to your prescription. REMs are carried out by many private hearing aid dispensers, but not routinely.
“Why are private hearing aids so expensive?”
And finally, just why are private hearing aids so incredibly expensive?! There is one element of better technology costing more. However, NHS hearing aids usually have a basic cost of about £50-£60 each for a standard Behind-The-Ear device, whereas private dispensers might purchase a top-spec Receiver-In-The-Ear aid for about £1500-£2000 (depending on spec, etc.). The difference in price at this point is not just about technology, but also about the number of units purchased. Most NHS Audiology departments in the UK fit hundreds of hearing aids every week and spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on hearing aids each year. Compare this to an individual private hearing aid dispenser and the number of hearing aid fittings can drop to just one or two per week. So private dispensers pay a higher cost price for premium hearing aids, so have to charge their customers more, but they also need to charge according to demand and capacity. A private hearing aid dispenser has far less demand than an NHS department and far less capacity to see many patients.
The other misconception about private hearing aids is that the entire cost is for the devices alone. The cost you pay for private hearing aids may also include your consultation, hearing test, ear wax removal, ear impressions, custom-made devices, hearing aid fitting, follow-up appointment, batteries, replacement parts, reassessment, etc. When you actually cost all of these other included products, services and clinic time, the cost of the actual hearing aids comes down significantly. Buying a hearing aid is not the same as buying a sofa – you won’t walk out of the store with your new hearing aids and never need to visit again. Hearing and hearing aids require on-going observation and maintenance.
So, yes, you can get more advanced technology privately and, if you plan to use all of what’s available then it may well be worth the expenditure. The other main difference between hearing aids from the NHS and privately is the service. While NHS Audiologists are highly trained and well-educated, they are pressured to see as many people as possible in a very short space of time and appointment waiting lists are usually long. Even if you don’t have to wait for an appointment for a repair, you still may have the inconvenience of having to wait at a walk-in repair clinic. Like most other private health care, by seeing a private Audiologist you will most likely never have to wait to be seen and, when you are, you will have much more time with your clinician.
So, if you are weighing up whether to stick with NHS hearing aids or purchase privately, my advice, having worked on both sides, would be to ask yourself: do you want and will you use the latest technology, do you want a very discreet device, do you want to be seen quickly? If these are all important to you, and of course you can afford it, then private aids may be the right option for you. However, if your listening needs are not complex (i.e. mostly 1-2-1 conversation in quiet or watching TV), you have no desire for modern technology and don’t mind NHS waiting times and busy clinics, then stick with the fantastic UK NHS!