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How to get the best hearing aid

NHS hearing aids

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NHS hearing aids

Which? and Action on Hearing Loss explain the process of getting NHS hearing aids, including the pros, cons and waiting times.

 

If you're trying to decide whether to get NHS hearing aids or go privately, check out our table of NHS vs private hearing aid providers.

Pros and cons of getting an NHS hearing aid

When we surveyed 1,739 Which? members in September 2016, 63% told us they'd got their hearing aids through the NHS. Here are some of the pros and cons of using the NHS, rather than buying privately:

Pros

  • NHS hearing aids are free. 
  • You’ll get free follow-up care, including repairs and replacement batteries. This is important, as any device that is used a lot needs to be maintained and looked after.
  • Many hospitals and providers of NHS hearing aids offer drop-in clinics for aftercare, either on site or at a visiting centre closer to you. Some providers may even offer home visits, but they'll need a letter from your GP first.
  • Digital models that can be set to accurately match your hearing loss are now issued as standard on the NHS.

Cons

  • You may not get much choice in the type of hearing aid you end up with - it’s likely to be a behind-the-ear model with earmould, or open-fit. For more information, see our guide to hearing aid types.
  • There may be a charge if you lose a hearing aid - check with the audiologist.
  • While in some areas you'll be seen quite quickly, the wait between your GP referral and treatment may be shorter if you go privately.
  • Your local hospital may offer a drop-in clinic for aftercare/repair but you'll usually have to wait to be seen.  

How do I get an NHS hearing aid?

The first step is to go to your GP. Having checked your ears and ruled out temporary causes, as a rule of thumb if you're 55 or over - or younger and presenting with symptoms that need investigating - you'll be referred on to see a specialist. 

This will generally either be an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor or an audiologist, particularly if you’re over 60.

Clinics are usually run by audiology staff at your GP surgery, local hospital or health centres.

The audiologist or one of their team will assess your hearing to find the cause of your hearing loss. Find out what happens in a hearing test.

If you’re having difficulty persuading your GP to refer you, try taking the Action on Hearing Loss hearing check to demonstrate that you’ve identified a problem.

What hearing aids are available on the NHS?

There's a myth that the NHS produces its own, inferior hearing aids. The NHS doesn’t produce its own hearing aids, but holds a special contract with the top manufacturers in the industry - ones that also sell privately. Hearing aids on the NHS are free and digital as standard.

The audiologist will assess your hearing and will advise you on the hearing aids that are suitable for you. You're unlikely to have a choice in the type of hearing aid you get.

You’ll usually be given a behind-the ear aid from the NHS but it will be an up-to-date model. You may alternatively get a less visible, open-fit model if you have mild or moderate hearing loss.

Some hospitals fit receiver-in-the-ear hearing aids, which look like the open-fit range but can be fitted for more moderate hearing losses.

  • To understand the different models available, check out our guide to hearing aid types

How long should I expect to wait for my hearing aid?

In England, the maximum waiting time between GP referral and getting your hearing aids is 18 weeks, and all services in England are meeting this. This is no longer an NHS target, but it’s a patient right stated in the NHS Constitution.

This means that, if it's not possible, the NHS commissioning board that commissions and funds your treatment must ‘take all reasonable steps to offer a suitable alternative provider’. This means you can ask to be referred to somewhere else that can see and treat you within the 18 weeks.

If you get a hearing aid through the Any Qualified Provider scheme in England, it should be 16 working days from referral to assessment, and another 20 days to fitting, ie 36 working days or seven weeks in total (some NHS trusts do allow a little longer, so check).

In Wales, the waiting time should be a maximum of 14 weeks from referral to treatment, in Scotland 18 weeks, and in Northern Ireland 22 weeks.

If you buy hearing aids privately, you'll usually get them within 10 to 20 days (the latter if you need earmoulds made, which takes around 10 days). It’s worth asking the private audiologist how long it will take for you to get your hearing aid, as it will vary - it could be significantly quicker.

Can I go private, but be paid for by the NHS?

The Any Qualified Provider (AQP) scheme means that some local NHS hearing services in England can be delivered through other organisations - such as private companies or charities - rather than you attending an NHS hospital, providing they meet NHS quality requirements, prices and contracts.

This depends on your local area, as not all offer the scheme. It’s only available to you if you have suspected age-related hearing loss with no other complications, and in many areas you also need to be aged 55 or older.

You’ll still be an NHS patient, so you’ll get a free service and hearing aids - and the audiologist won’t be able to sell you anything extra. If you’re not sure whether AQP applies in your area, speak to your GP and ask whether you have a choice over who provides your NHS audiology service.

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