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2 December 2020

NHS hearing aids

Which? and RNID explain the process of getting NHS hearing aids, including the pros, cons and waiting times.
Hearing aids through nhs 475588
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Joanna Pearl

Nearly half (46%) of Which? members and other adults with a hearing aid that we surveyed in May 2020 told us they had got their hearing aids through the NHS (a hospital or clinic). 

So should you follow suit? To help you decide, we've compiled the pros and cons of using the NHS, rather than buying privately or using the 'Any Qualified Provider' scheme (see below) whereby the NHS pays (in certain parts of the country) for you to go to a private retailer.

You can see the best and worst hearing aid retailers, rated by 1,572 which? members and other adults in our May 2020 survey, and find out the scores in key areas for NHS vs private retailers.

Pros of NHS hearing aids

  • 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 of NHS hearing aids

  • 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. Some areas issue receiver-in-the-ear/canal hearing aids too. 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.  

If you're planning to buy hearing aids privately, make sure you know what you're getting in the price. We compare what each company really offers in its hearing aid prices, and what you can expect to pay for the latest models.

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, provided 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'll also need to be aged 55 or older (in some areas the age requirement it's lower).

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. 

Companies such as Specsavers and Scrivens offer AQP services in some areas of England (Specsavers says it offers it in half of its branches), and you can check if this includes your area on the companies' websites.

Find out more about the differences between NHS and private hearing aids

How do I get an NHS hearing aid?

The first step is to go to your GP, who will check your ears and rule out any temporary causes of hearing loss, such as wax or infection, before referring you to a specialist. 

This will generally either be an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor or an audiologist.

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. 

If you’re having difficulty persuading your GP to refer you, you can ask for a second opinion with another GP.

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 - the same manufacturers who also sell privately. 

Hearing aids on the NHS are free and digital as standard, and you may be surprised at what's available.

The audiologist will assess your hearing and will advise you on the hearing aids that are suitable for you. Depending on your hearing loss and lifestyle, you may not have a choice in the type of hearing aid you get.

You’ll usually be given a behind-the-ear aid from the NHS: A quarter (26%) of our NHS hospital patients got behind-the ear aids with earmoulds while 62% got less visible behind-the-ear open-fit hearing aids (suitable for mild or moderate hearing loss). Whichever you get, they will be up-to-date models.

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. One in 10 of our NHS patients got these compared with 38% of private patients (and 9% 'Any Qualified Provider').

Hearing aids and earmoulds come in a range of different colours, so it's worth asking what is available.

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. NHS England data (Feb 2020) shows that 95.6% of people are waiting less than 18 weeks from referral to treatment.

In fact, the average (median) waiting time was 3.5 weeks (February 2020 data).

This varied between regions, with people in the North West waiting an average of 2.8 weeks, compared with 4.4 weeks in the South West.

The highest average waiting time was 13.8 weeks in Wandsworth in London, and the lowest was 0.9 weeks in Enfield, Stafford and Surrounds, Sunderland and West Kent.

Further data wasn't published for 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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 get a hearing aid from the NHS 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).

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

Should I be offered two hearing aids by the NHS?

According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines on hearing loss, there is extensive evidence that fitting two hearing aids rather than one benefits people with hearing loss in both ears.

The benefits include helping people identify which direction sound is coming from, and suppressing tinnitus.

RNID's research found that 96% of providers interviewed offer two hearing aids where clinically appropriate.

But four providers (two in England, two in Wales) only offer two hearing aids if the person requests this. In addition, one provider in England provides two hearing aids 'by exception only'.

So, do ask if you think you need two hearing aids but are only offered one.