Trying to decide whether to buy hearing aids privately or get them from the NHS? Real-life customers reveal the pros and cons.
Trying to decide whether to buy hearing aids privately or get them from the NHS? Real-life customers reveal the pros and cons. Most people get their hearing aids from the NHS. But with a growing number of hearing aid specialists on our high streets, should you choose to pay privately?
Or should you leap at a more recent third way and let the NHS pay for you to go to a high street retailer through the ‘Any Qualified Provider’ scheme?
To find out, we surveyed Which? members and other adults who have recently got a hearing aid via the NHS or bought hearing aids from a private provider. We asked how things had gone from start to finish, and got them to rate their experience.
The results reveal that overall satisfaction with hearing aid providers is high among UK customers, whether they use the NHS or go private.
Of 1,572 Which? members and other adults surveyed, people who paid privately weren’t significantly more satisfied (customer score of 80%) compared with those who got their hearing aids from the NHS (customer score of 76%) But you may be surprised at a difference between those who go to high street shops such as Hidden Hearing and Boots Hearcare, and those who go to exactly the same retailers with the NHS footing the bill.
The customer score for those who pay privately was significantly higher (80%) than for those for whom the NHS paid to go privately through the Any Qualified Provider scheme (71% satisfaction score).
Find out how the NHS and private providers compare for individual aspects of service in the table below. There are some differences that you need to know about when you’re making a choice.
NHS and private hearing aid providers compared
NHS hearing aids vs privately bought hearing aids with Private Private (paid for by NHS – AQP) and NHS (hospital or clinic) respectively.
Waiting times 96% 91% 78%
Testing environment 97% 92% 95%
Staff 97% 91% 94%
Thorough testing 99% 92% 96%
Product range 83% 31% 27%
Hearing aid appearance 95% 73% 70%
Hearing aid comfort 91% 75% 73%
Hearing aid suitability 93% 77% 73%
After-care 93% 78% 75%
Price 83% — —
Customer score 80% 71% 76%
Getting the right hearing aids
The biggest difference is in the range of hearing aids offered by providers. The NHS scored 27%, compared with 31% for Any Qualified Provider (NHS pays private retailers) and 83% for private hearing aids.
This is interesting considering customers can access the same brands on the NHS as they can by buying privately (although not the very latest models). The number of brands people get is actually pretty narrow.
Some 60% of people who went NHS, and 40% of people who went private (and know what brand they have) got Phonak, Oticon or Siemens/Signia hearing aids. Another difference in customer scores is for after-care. It’s the oft-forgotten but crucial part of buying a hearing aid that’s bundled into the price.
The NHS gets 75%, compared with private companies paid for by the NHS getting 78%. But private companies paid for by individuals are rated 93% for their after-care. The biggest difference between the NHS and private is in the range of hearing aids offered. One NHS customer said: ‘I was not offered a range of aids but the aids I have do the job and were free.’ Another added: ‘I assumed I would have a choice of type, and style etc. But the NHS offered me one type, and that was it.
This is not a complaint, but a statement of fact.’ Another said: ‘I would recommend anyone who is thinking they need a hearing aid to go through NHS and get the free service, and if you are happy with the results of having a hearing aid but want a smaller more discreet hearing aid, go private and pay for one.’ But one respondent reflected many positive comments:
‘Friends have been surprised to hear how good the NHS hearing aids are. You do not have to pay a lot of money for good hearing aids.’ Several people mentioned NHS provision during the coronavirus pandemic: ‘I needed new tubes for my hearing aids. Couldn’t go to local health centre due to COVID-19.
I emailed the NHS Audiologist and received several spare tubes and batteries by return post.’ Our hearing aid prices guide explains what you can expect to pay at the biggest retailers.
NHS vs private staff and facilities
You might expect to have a different experience of staff – including professionalism, dealing with questions and concerns and knowledge, and thorough testing – when getting an NHS hearing aid compared with buying one privately.
But, although there were differences, both the NHS and private retailers were rated over 90% in these areas. And facilities were rated higher by private customers on measures including comfort, cleanliness and level of privacy, but NHS scores were still high (over 90% on the latter two measures).
NHS and private waiting times
Many people might expect waiting times for consultations and fitting to be drastically different across the sectors (a third of private customers went private for quicker waiting-times) but our findings are not entirely damning of the NHS, although there are significant differences.
NHS patients gave waiting-times a customer score of 78%, compared with 96% for private customers and 91% for those using the Any Qualified Provider scheme (NHS pays for you to go to a private retailer).
Two-thirds of NHS patients (who could recall waiting times) said they were seen at the hospital in four weeks or less after GP referral. This was nine in ten for those whose GP referred them to a private retailer (AQP). Nearly all private customers were seen within four weeks of requesting an appointment.
The best-rated private providers are independent retailers, rather than chains. To find out how the big chains scored, see our review of private hearing aid providers.
Hearing aids – NHS vs private
Private customers gave appearance, comfort and suitability of hearing aids significantly higher customer scores than NHS and Any Qualified Provider (NHS pays private retailer) customers. This may be due to the type of hearing aids customers get.
For example, 88% of NHS customers get behind-the-ear hearing aids (open-fit or mould), compared with 46% of private customers, although this could be due to a number of factors, such as the severity of hearing loss for NHS and private customers.