People are having to wait up to five years to swap their old-fashioned analogue hearing aid for the latest digital technology, a report has found.
Digital hearing aids are a major advance
The British Society of Hearing Aid Audiologists said the long waits particularly hit older people.
Across the UK the average wait was 60-64 weeks for an upgrade. For a first hearing aid it was 45 weeks.
It is estimated that 5-6 million people would benefit from a hearing aid, but only 2 million have them fitted.
The government began to roll out a programme to replace analogue hearing aids with digital versions six years ago, and the latest technology has been available in all English hospitals for over 18 months.
The survey found England had the longest waits for an upgrade - an average of 68 to 72 weeks.
In Wales the average figure was 45 weeks, in Northern Ireland between 36 and 44 weeks, and in Scotland between 27 and 29 weeks.
The longest wait of five years was recorded at four hospitals:
- Beverley Westwood Hospital, east Yorkshire
- Victoria Hospital, Blackpool
- University Hospital of North Staffordshire, Stoke on Trent
- Hull Royal Infirmary
Six English hospitals had waiting times of over 200 weeks, 12 had lists of over 150 weeks and 36 over 100 weeks.
In contrast, Rotherham General Hospital said they would provide an analogue hearing aid user with a digital model in two to three weeks.
North Stoke Primary Care Trust, which invests in services at University Hospital, blamed said competing priorities for funding for the delays.
First hearing aid
The report also found the average wait across the UK for a first hearing aid had dropped to between 42 and 45 weeks from between 43 to 47 weeks a year ago.
In England the average wait has risen for the third successive year - to between 45 and 48 weeks - but they have fallen in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Karen Finch, BSHAA president, said the findings made gloomy reading for patients, and NHS staff.
She said that even though waiting times for a first hearing aid had fallen in some parts, they were still much too long.
"But what is most shocking is the length of time people who already have an analogue hearing aid are having to wait to get that upgraded to a digital one.
"Most of these people are older, and in many cases very old. To have to wait five years for the chance to improve their quality of life must be the biggest healthcare shock in Europe."
Deprived of funds
Ms Finch said a programme set up to modernise the NHS hearing aid service had been badly affected by a failure to ring-fence funds.
She said: "We do know from the Audit Commission that in the UK four million people would benefit from a hearing aid, but do not have one.
"This rising demand is bound to send waiting lists through the roof if something is not done urgently to change the way NHS hearing aids are supplied."
Professor Ian Philp, National Director for Older People at the Department of Health, said it was not acceptable that older people were having to wait so long for digital hearing aids.
He said "Hearing services have to become a higher priority because hearing loss can lead to isolation and in some case to depression.
"The government has given £120m towards improving access to and the availability of digital hearing aids and later this year, as part of the government's action plan, I intend to produce a guide for Primary Care Trusts who commission hearing aid services."