A few months ago one of my hearing aids began occasionally playing up, or rather occasionally switching off, for no apparent reason. After twenty-odd years of using hearing aids I’m adept at solving the little things that can go wrong (faulty batteries, or wax or condensation blocking the tubing are the most common problems) but it wasn’t any of those. Mysteriously, left to its own devices (outside my ear) for ten or fifteen minutes the aid would switch itself on again. Then, it would work perfectly normally for a week or so and then – whoops – go (temporarily) off again. It was a minor irritant. When it happened I’d tell myself to contact audiology to see if it needed servicing or something, but I never got round to it.
After a while the problems started happening more often so, when I had an appointment at the hospital in August to collect spare hearing aids just before our holiday, I mentioned it. We discussed the sort of everyday things that can go wrong (examples above) and I explained that I was certain it was none of those. “Let’s monitor it” was the conclusion and, as I was picking up spare hearing aids for the holiday anyway, I left it at that. If something went wrong that I couldn’t fix on holiday I would have a spare with me, so no problem.
After the holiday the “switchings-off” got more frequent until I finally got round to contacting audiology again. I can do that by e mail rather than telephone (hurrah, hurrah – well, after all, it IS audiology, it wouldn’t be very good if you had to phone them…). I described the problem, explained that it was happening much more often and asked for an appointment. Within a day or so they replied, with an appointment about 10 days later.
Last Sunday, the hearing aid completely stopped working. I ran through all my strategies for getting it going again but to no avail. The appointment was for Tuesday so it wasn’t too bad to limp through a couple of days with only one ear in hearing mode.
On Tuesday I was ten minutes early for the appointment. I was seen straight away. The audiologist asked a few questions, had a quick look at the device, satisfied herself it was indeed as dead as a dodo and then gave me a brand new one, explaining that it was almost impossible to get to the bottom of mysteriously intermittent problems. I was heading back to the car in about fifteen minutes. I don’t know how much the aid costs the NHS but models doing the same thing bought privately cost about £1,500 each.
Readers, that’s the story. It seemed important to tell it, at a time when the NHS seems to be lurching into crisis (again). Waiting times in Accident and Emergency are slipping (again). There’s constant news of non-urgent operations having to be abandoned or rationed. Barely a week goes by without some friend telling me about ludicrous delays in their attempts to access some service they have been assessed as needing.
If, like me, you read the hearing loss media we are constantly hearing stories about threatened or actual cuts to hearing aid provision. In Devon, plans to restrict people to getting just one hearing aid even if they needed two were only withdrawn after a strong local campaign. (What were they THINKING of?). North Staffordshire have stopped providing hearing aids altogether for mild hearing losses and introduced additional assessment hurdles for people with moderate loss. Many NHS Trusts have stopped offering follow-up appointments – they give you the hearing aid then send you off with it to cope on your own. But hearing aids aren’t like spectacles; current digital models often need a lot of fine tuning before they give you the best experience. I’ve really struggled with some new aids in the past, having to return multiple times before reaching a solution. If you are persistent and assertive you will do that, but some will give up – then they wonder why a lot of people don’t wear the hearing aids they have been given.
Problems with hearing aid provision are not just a UK problem, although the issues differ depending on the health care system in place. Some of the deafness blogs I follow are American and there you can read comments left by people who explain that they can’t afford to buy the hearing aid they’ve been told they need, and their insurance doesn’t cover it, so “what is the best hearing aid I can get for $250?” Answer – it depends on your hearing loss but if you were me anything less sophisticated than the ones I have now would be no use at all.
I’ve written this post because when you value something, as I value the service from my excellent local NHS Audiology Department, I feel it’s important to say so. Who knows what threats to the service lie around the corner? If you’d like to keep up with what’s happening to hearing aid provision in the UK a good place to look is the Campaigns Page on the Action on Hearing Loss website. You can find it here.