Ady Swinbourne: Why I got private hearing aids after 29 years with the NHS

Posted on September 4, 2013

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Having been born deaf with moderate to severe hearing loss, I’ve worn NHS hearing aids since my earliest months.

In many ways, these trusty aids and me have been inseparable ever since. I wish I’d kept every pair I’ve had to see how they developed over time – or not, as the case may be!

Even though it’s clear that there have been massive leaps in technological innovation in the last 29 years, the technology available on the NHS seems to be much the same.

As comfortable as I am with my deafness, a thought occurred to me one day. If I had suddenly turned deaf at 29, would I accept the NHS hearing aids I was given? Or would I search for the best technology I could get?

The real turning point for me was the day I arrived at a far flung airport on a surfing trip when I spotted an older chap, no younger than 75, wearing what looked like some discreet and technologically advanced hearing aids.

There I was in my twenties, feeling jealous of an OAP with better hearing aids than me. That didn’t seem quite right.

I’d become frustrated with my NHS hearing aids for a number of reasons. It wasn’t just the aids themselves, but the feedback, earmolds and tubes.

Feedback noise from hearing aids is similar to what you can sometimes hear at an amateur concert when an overexcited singer gets too close to the speakers. Only the screeching screech from a hearing aid is heard not from afar, but directly, and loudly, in the ear. Not pleasant.

With feedback, probably the biggest challenge I faced on a daily basis was feeling like I couldn’t smile or laugh freely without inadvertently loosening up my earmold, generating feedback and an earth-shattering whistle.

Charlie (my brother) has written his own tales about this and how it led to having speech therapy sessions when he was a teenager. For me, I like to laugh. We all like to laugh. But no one wants a piercing whistle to dampen the mood. Or to end up having speech therapy.

With earmolds, I always tried to get them replaced regularly to make sure they were the best fit possible – to reduce any potential for feedback. However, even though ears never stop growing, I’ve found the NHS aren’t willing to replace molds as frequently as they used to. Cue a yearly battle to get them replaced.

Next, the tubes. The see-through tubes are essential in supplying sound from the aid – which is located behind the ear, down through the mold and into the ear itself. But the tubes are less good at hydrating the ear.

Hearing aid users will know what I mean. With condensation from the ear itself, the tubes do have a habit of building up droplets of water.

If you’re really unlucky- say on a hot day, a bigger droplet will form and it will be so big that it will block the sound going through the tube completely, such as during an important meeting at work – when it suddenly sounds like you’re submerged underwater, and it feels like your career is too.

So, wanting a change, I tried to get some new hearing aids through the NHS. However, when I tried them, they sounded worse than the ones I already had. Making a change that might turn out to be for the worse wasn’t a risk I could accept for me or for my career.

That’s when I began to do some research to find out what I could get privately. I knew it wouldn’t be cheap, but I couldn’t think of anything more important to spend my money on.

Although there were some other options on the high street, I was keen on Boots. At my first consultation at Boots, I met my audiologist and we went through some of the options for a good half an hour after my hearing test. We even took a stroll through the shopping centre trying out a pair of Phonak hearing aids that he recommended for me.

The tiny nanotechnology aids sat just behind the ear with a tiny wire going into the ear canal through to a small power receiver that sits inside the ear, making it far more discreet than a traditional mold.

What’s more (and I didn’t know this until my consultation) it turned out that the annoying everyday feedback I had encountered can be eradicated. Yup, no more screeching. I would be able to laugh more than ever before – hopefully that’s a good thing for everyone!

So, after lots of thought (and saving more money up) I signed up.

I chose the Phonak Audeo Q telephone-friendly telecoil version Q-312T – and I chose a cool black colour, rather than boring NHS-beige.

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When I first got them, I drove out of the multi-storey car park listening to one of my favourite tracks on the car stereo. The sound was delightfully crisp. I could hear more layers of sound. And I could pick out a few more words and lyrics.

The hearing aids are also bluetooth-enabled and so I can connect up to my iPhone for telephone calls or to simply enjoy music.

There are lots of sophisticated settings available and I’ve been back to see my audiologist several times for fine tuning. By going private, I think the benefit is that you’re not only getting the latest technology but you’re also paying for quality service.

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So, with crystal clear sound, bluetooth-enabled hearing aids, the tiniest and discreet wire you’ll ever find (with no more droplets of water), no more silicone molds and no more feedback, I feel that I have got exactly what I wanted and what I needed.

Phonak’s tagline is ‘Life is On.’ I couldn’t agree more.

Ady Swinbourne is currently living in Bristol and working in e-commerce. He’s a keen Nottingham Forest fan who surfs at the weekend and has lived in New York and Chicago. This is Ady’s first ever published blog – his brother, Charlie, is the Editor of The Limping Chicken.

The Limping Chicken is the UK’s deaf blogs and news website, and is the world’s 6th most popular disability blog. 

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