Hearing aids for £99 – but how good is Hearing Direct?

First published in the April 2010 issue of the Hearing Times

I’ve been loyally wearing NHS hearing aids since I was two years old. At first I hated the aids and flushed them down the toilet, forcing my Mum to retrieve them. Luckily they survived, I got used to wearing them, and my Mum eventually forgave me. I’ve worn them ever since.

My only visit to a private clinic was about five years ago. At the time I was bored with the look of my beige aids and wanted something a bit more funky. Alas, the price of the aids, at over £1000 per ear, put me off, as did the receptionist’s attitude when I pointed out that the hearing aid batteries they were selling for £7 were free on the NHS. She pretended not to hear me, and I never went back.

The biggest problem for people who need hearing aids is the stark disparity in price between the NHS and the private market. It’s a choice between a limited choice of aids – and a long waiting list – that is free of charge and a wider choice of aids that might be as expensive as a half-decent second hand car. So I was interested to hear about a brand-new website that aims to bridge that gap, called Hearing Direct (http://hearingdirect.com/) who are selling hearing aids for as little as £99.

The site has been set up by a young man called Jamie Murray Wells, who has a bit of form in this area: he revolutionised the glasses market by selling prescription spectacles for only £20, and took on the high street chains. He’s now trying to do the same thing for hearing aids.

There are four types of hearing aid on their site, priced from £99 to £299 per ear, with extra features in the more expensive pairs. They are delivered to your door, and there is a 30 day “no quibble” money back policy.

I know several people who have brought private hearing aids simply because they were on a long NHS waiting list, so it struck me that this service could be useful if only as a cheaper way of filling that gap.

The service is web-only, which made me wonder – what about the trained audiologists I’ve met, who mark my hearing loss on a graph, then adjust my hearing aids to match the sounds I can and can’t hear? Not to mention filling my ears with plasticine to make a perfect-fitting ear mould.

To be able to offer such cheap hearing aids, costs have been kept low and Hearing Direct admit they have “no expensive shops, no expensive staff.” Rather than a face-to-face appointment, they offer an online hearing check, so I took my hearing aids off, put on some headphones and had a go.

The check involves listening to a series of clips where your job is to hear a number which is spoken on top of background noise. I got a score of 56% (against an average of 80%), and the check concluded that I “could have difficulty understanding speech in noise,” and that I “could benefit” from a hearing aid. I couldn’t argue with that!

My concern was the check was very basic. It found out that I am deaf – but not whether I hear low or high sounds better, or what my audiogram might look like.

The reason for this is that the hearing aids themselves do not vary depending on hearing loss; they are pre-programmed and designed to deal with the “natural ageing process” – meaning the kind of hearing loss older people might experience. So they all offer more amplification for the higher sounds that are often the first to diminish.

This one-size-fits-all policy means the hearing aids they sell might work perfectly well for one person, but poorly for someone with an unusual kind of hearing loss. This is why (commendably) they recommend the NHS service on their website.

What Hearing Direct can offer is a cheaper alternative to the existing private market, that will arrive quicker than the NHS. So despite my criticisms, they genuinely do fill a gap in the market and I hope their existence might encourage more diversity in the hearing aid market.

I’m still waiting for hearing aids that look cool – and innovative new websites like Hearing Direct may just spur other people on, bringing us closer to hearing aids that look like bluetooth headsets, or iPod headphones, and most importantly, are never, ever beige.

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