It’s time to have my ears what?

Smart consumer

Listen up: It’s time to have your ears checked

By John Cradden

Absolutely no pun intended, but here is a piece of information that tends to fall on deaf ears.

One in six people worldwide has a hearing loss greater than 25 decibels (dB), according to the World Health Organisation.

About half of them would have a mild hearing loss (25dB or more), while the rest would have what would be categorised as moderate, severe or profound losses.

What’s that you say? One of six of us has a hearing loss?

This may actually be a bit high. The most frequently-quoted figure for developed countries is around 10% of the population, which still suggests nearly 500,000 of us in Ireland have a hearing loss.

But what is certain is that the numbers are likely to rise thanks to our rapidly ageing population, not to mention ear damage caused by constant exposure to high levels of noise at work, or music at rock concerts and nightclubs, and of course, personal audio devices.

The UK Medical Research Council, for instance, estimates that the number of deaf and hard of hearing people is set to increase by about 14% every ten years.

But right now, some experts estimate that about 6% of the adult population could benefit from the fitting of hearing aids.

But why does all this information fall on deaf ears, exactly?

Research suggests people wait an average of 10 years or more before seeking help with a significant hearing loss.

I wish you would tell that to my elderly dad as I’m convinced he is going deaf, but he won’t listen. (But then again, maybe he can’t hear me.)

There is no doubting that hearing loss has a serious impact on quality of life. And not just for the individual concerned, but their family and friends too.

There is also no doubting that hearing aids still have a bit of a stigma attached to them, in the same way that glasses used to have before they became high-street fashion items.

Not that hearing aids are ever likely to become fashion items, but the stigma isn’t as strong as it was.

There do seem to be quite a few hearing aid shops around the place now, right enough.

Yes, there has been a huge growth in the private hearing aid market. Over the past five years the number of private hearing aid shops or clinics in Ireland has more than doubled, according to the Irish Society of Hearing Aid Audiologists (ISHAA).

Even the large optician chain Specsavers has muscled into the market and now has ‘hearing centres’ in most of their opticians around the country. The biggest chain remains Hidden Hearing, which has over 50 clinics throughout the island of Ireland.

The most famous of them all, Bonavox (the highly ironic inspiration behind the stage name of a certain member of U2), is now expanding too. But there remain lots of reputable smaller, single shops too.

If I manage to persuade my Dad to at least take a hearing test, should I tell him to go to the GP first?

You can go the GP, but unless you have a medical card, most of them will usually point you in the direction of a reputable private hearing aid shop anyway.

Most private clinics will happily give you a free, “no-obligation” hearing test. If the audiologist is properly qualified (as they should be), they should refer you back to a GP if they find any suspected medical issues during a hearing examination.

Ok, but how much do hearing aids cost?

You can buy a digital hearing aid for as little as €300, but the average price is closer to around €1,000 or more, according to audiologists we spoke to. You can spend as much as €3,000 or more on one, and many do. Most of them come with warranties of between three and five years.

Why are they still so expensive?

The standard answer from audiologists is that dispensing hearing aids is nothing like dispensing glasses.

It requires a lot of input from the audiologist, including customised adjustments, programming, reviews and personalised ear moulds and shells – all of which add to the overall cost.

Is there not some grant you can get towards the cost of them?

Yes, you can get a PRSI grant towards the cost of one or two hearing aids. Recently cut in the 2012 Budget, it’s now up to a maximum of €500 per aid, or €1,000 for two, and you can apply for it once in every four years.

If it turns out I have just a mild hearing loss, does that mean I need a hearing aid?

Deafhear, a charity that represents and promotes the welfare of deaf and hard of hearing people says it would not recommend fitting hearing aids to folk with very mild hearing losses.

“The vast majority of our first-time customers have severe or greater hearing losses,” says spokesman Brendan Lennon.

Customers? Deafhear sells hearing aids too?

Yes, it entered the market four years ago. Not to make a profit, but as a result of “continued complaints of exploitation from members of the public”, says Lennon.

It believed “super normal profits” were being made on hearing aids by some hearing aid dispensers. “It is an unregulated industry that does nothing to encourage consumer confidence,” he says.

There’s no regulation?

There is now an EU standard for private hearing aid dispensers in place, but this doesn’t mean the sector is now regulated. The ISHAA reckons that regulation is still a number of years away, but it intends to ensure its members all meet the EU standard and develop a comprehensive patient complaints procedure with the health standards watchdog HIQA.

Individuals firms seem to be doing their bit too. Both Bonavox and Hidden Hearing told us of a number of efforts to improve Irish standards and training for their audiologists.

Indeed, Lennon says prices and terms and conditions have “improved markedly” since Deafhear entered the market, but added that if effective regulation is introduced, it will withdraw from the market.


Panel Joe Duffin

Joe Duffin, 54, from Dublin, has worn hearing aids since his teens, but believes he probably wouldn’t even have got a hearing test in the first place if the family hadn’t moved to Scotland when he was five years old.

“The Scottish health system in schools was much better than those in Dublin in that era,” he said.

Joe isn’t the only member of his family with a hearing loss.

“I vaguely remember my mother telling me my sister developed hearing problems from measles as a young child and that I also had similar problems.” However, his wife thinks it runs in the family as his uncle is also hard of hearing.

He bought his first hearing aid from Bonavox in Dublin 25 years ago, and has remained a customer ever since, as does his sister. He now wears two hearing aids: an in-the-ear model for his moderately-deaf right ear, and a more powerful, behind-the-ear model for his severely-deaf left ear.

“I find the staff very helpful, and we have built up a relationship over the years,” he said.  “They always have an engineer on site for repairs, which I find most helpful.”

Unfortunately, being a self-employed taxi driver, Joe doesn’t qualify for the PRSI grant towards the cost of hearing aids.

“The only assistance that I can avail of is the tax relief on my annual Med 1 returns, which as you know is the basic 20% tax relief off the cost of the full hearing aid.”

This article was first published in the Irish Independent

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