Hearing loss is the most common physical condition in Australia after back pain. Around 22% of people aged 15 and over are hearing-impaired, and each year more than 100,000 of them choose to be fitted with hearing aids.
There are several different types of aids available, depending on the level of your hearing impairment. It's best to speak to your doctor or a qualified audiologist before deciding on what's the right option for you, but this guide will help you understand the differences between the various devices, and what they can do to help you.
What type of hearing aid do I need?
There are several options available for the hard-of-hearing, and your hearing services provider will tell you which is most suitable for your condition and circumstances.
- The most common hearing aids are those worn behind the ear (BTE), which are relatively easy to maintain and suitable for all levels of hearing loss.
- Hearing aids worn in the ear (ITE), in the canal (ITC) or the smallest type – completely in the canal (CIC) – are suitable for mild to moderate hearing loss.
- People with profound hearing loss can benefit from body-worn hearing aids, where you wear the electronics in a pocket and a fine cable connects it to an earpiece.
- Bone anchored hearing aids (BAHA) allow for direct stimulation of the inner ear and can be an option for those who can't use conventional aids.
- Cochlear and auditory brainstem implants are effective in some cases of profound deafness.
- For limited hearing problems, an alternative (or assistive) listening device (ALD) may be all that's required – for example, TV headphones, telephone typewriters (TTY) or vibrating alarm clocks.
What else do I need to know about buying a hearing aid?
Get the right advice
You can get a hearing assessment from an audiology department in a major hospital, usually free of charge, or from a practitioner in private practice. The first consultation generally involves testing and diagnosis. A second consultation may be needed if a hearing aid is recommended. During these consultations, your hearing services provider should:
- do an audiogram and explain the results
- explain the benefits and limitations of different types of hearing aids, if aids are recommended
- give you a detailed quote
- agree to a trial period of at least 30 days
- outline a plan for how to get the best from your new hearing aid and make arrangements for a follow-up visit.
With hearing aids, it certainly pays to shop around. We found an inner-Sydney clinic charging $14,000 for a pair of top-of-the-range Siemens hearing aids, including fitting and service, compared with $11,000 by a clinic in western Sydney. For the same devices without any service, another Sydney clinic charged $7400, while we found an online UK retailer charging about $4900 and a US online retailer selling them through eBay for $3340. (Find out more about buying from overseas .)
Ask the first provider you see for a copy of your audiogram, but be aware you'll probably have to pay a fee for access to this. Equipped with the results of your hearing test and one practitioner's recommendations, you could try getting a few phone quotes from other providers for the same or a similar aid. Know what features you want so you don't end up comparing one brand's top-of-the-range aid with another's cheaper, mid-range model. Also be aware that most clinics will offer a bundled price that includes a hearing test, fitting, adjustments and sometimes ongoing service.
Are top-end aids worth it?
The main difference between top-end aids and more basic ones is better performance in noisy situations. If you need to attend meetings at work or have a very active lifestyle, or if you're looking for extra features such as Bluetooth and better noise reduction, medium- to top-end hearing aids are usually the best choice. Whatever your needs, be wary of retailers exaggerating those needs.
Free hearing services
Hearing aids aren't covered by Medicare, but under the Australian Government's hearing program children, most pensioners, part-pensioners, veterans and their dependants are eligible for a free hearing assessment, hearing rehabilitation and hearing aids or ALDs.
- The hearing aids available free of charge include basic BTE and ITE models. More specialised styles are available for people with special needs. Janette Thorburn from the federal government agency Australian Hearing told us that if you have complex needs, including severe hearing loss or difficulty understanding speech (even if it's presented at loud levels), or if you have an additional disability such as blindness or intellectual impairment that aggravates your hearing loss, you may be entitled to a mid-level aid for free from an Australian Hearing centre.
- Most of the free devices are basic, but they often have features such as automatic directional microphones, noise reduction, multichannel function, telecoils (designed for hearing-aid compatible phones and assistive listening systems in public places such as theatres), wireless connectivity and basic remote controls.
- If you're after aids with higher-technology features, you'll have to pay your provider the difference between the cost of these 'top-up' aids and that of appropriate aids that could be fitted free. Almost one in three OHS clients buys a device with some additional features – often for thousands of dollars extra. Should you wish to buy a top-up hearing aid, you may be able to save a couple of thousand dollars on the retail price with an OHS voucher.
- Voucher applications are available from your GP or specialist, or directly from the OHS. Call 1800 500 726 or TTY 1800 500 496, or visit health.gov.au/hear to find out more about your eligibility. If eligible, you'll receive a list of hearing clinics in your local area. All offer the same free devices, but may have differences in the range and price for the top-up aids. Ask: Which brands do you carry? What's the price range for a basic, medium and top-of-the-range top-up aid? Can I trial the aids? For how long? Are there any costs?
If you have extras cover as part of your health insurance, you may be entitled to a benefit for hearing aids. However, we found the benefits are nowhere close to the cost, nor do they apply if you buy from overseas. Benefits ranged from $200 to $1600, with the average being only about $700. For most respondents to a CHOICE survey who had extras cover, the benefit only covered only about 25% or less of the cost.
You may be eligible the Australian government's medical expenses offset. In the 2012-13 financial year, this was a 20% tax offset for annual medical expenses above $2120 (or $5000 if you earn more than $84,000 as a single or $168,000 as a couple or family).
Second-hand hearing aids
If you can't afford new hearing aids, you may be able to get recycled ones from a hearing aid bank for a low administrative fee.
Buying hearing aids from overseas
CHOICE member Matthew B from Perth was quoted $12,000 for a pair of top-end Oticon hearing aids by his local clinic. After some ringing around he found another local clinic offering them for $9000. He ended up buying online from a UK retailer for about $4250.
According to Clinical Audiologist Dr Rodney Glance, "There are many reasons hearing aids are more expensive in Australia than overseas. Our wholesale prices often exceed what the devices are sold for in the USA or other countries.
"Bear in mind also that almost all clients have bundled services, which means that they may be seen numerous times for no charge apart from their initial purchase."
In Matthew's case, the UK retailer programmed the hearing aids according to his audiogram, and he's been very happy with them. After some searching, Matthew found some local clinics that agreed to help him with servicing his aids for $100-200 per appointment, though he hasn't needed their services so far.
If you're thinking of buying your hearing aids overseas via the internet, check with the local manufacturer if they'll accept the international warranty - you normally only get a one-year international warranty, as opposed to three if you buy in Australia. In Matthew's case, Oticon agreed to accept the international warranty. Another large manufacturer, Siemens, told us they'd do the same.
If you find you're not eligible for free hearing services, a new hearing aid can cost anywhere from under $1000 to more than $10,000.