For my kids, that moment is usually when the wi-fi goes down just as they’re starting homework that’s due in the next day. They view the fact that I pre-date the internet with a mixture of awe and pity. “How did you even live?” they cry, incredulously.
My closest equivalent experience, as a baby boomer child, was probably my mum and dad’s tales of their early lives without the safety net of the NHS – if you didn’t have the means to pay for a doctor’s care, you took your chances on the outcome.
“How did you even live?” is probably what I said, too.
Consequently, I’ve thanked my lucky stars for the NHS many a time in my life. But, as with any vast organisation that has many competing demands to prioritise – and finite resources to do so – there’s always going to be the need to challenge when the status quo isn’t working.
So when I was asked to reflect on a pivotal moment in the history of the NHS and our members with hearing loss, it wasn’t difficult to choose.
In 2001 we (then known as RNID) released a report, Audiology in Crisis, about the disparity in hearing aid service waiting times, depending on where you lived, as well as the quality of the hearing aids provided. Some people, for instance, were waiting 10 months from the time of their hearing test to having a hearing aid fitted. In a different part of the country, the same process took just five weeks.
Just as pressing was the fact that the standard issue analogue NHS aids hadn’t changed in 30 years, despite game-changing technological advances that the private audiology sector was marketing to those who could afford to buy. Only a tiny minority (five per cent) of people who needed a hearing aid were deemed eligible for a state-of-the-art digital hearing aid on the NHS.
The ensuing campaign was a personal high point in my time working for this (or any other) charity.
It took four years of rigorous campaigning and nearly every department in the charity was involved. We issued more than 50,000 specially designed postcards to our members and supporters to send to their MPs across the UK, demanding digital hearing aid provision free on the NHS.
The Government listened. The then-Health Minister, Jacqui Smith, wrote in our April 2003 magazine issue: “For too long, the NHS gave people old-fashioned hearing aids. Worse, they were often fitted in a 1960s-style service that wasn’t geared up to meet people’s needs. In 2000, a project to give people digital hearing aids as part of a modernised NHS audiology service was launched…The project has been taken forward by the Department of Health and the RNID in a revolutionary, successful collaboration…The day is coming closer when anyone who needs one can have a modern, digital hearing aid, properly fitted and adjusted to suit their needs.”
The announcement of an extra £94m to complete the modernisation project by April 2005 meant that audiology provision, once deemed the ‘Cinderella service’ of the NHS, would now be world-class. Around 1.8 million people who could benefit from digital aids would now get them. As one member wrote to me soon after:
“Words are insufficient to describe the difference these two digital aids have made to my quality of life.”
For me, this is what membership is all about – how strength in numbers, and the combined efforts of an organisation and the people it represents, can effect real and lasting change that transforms lives.
Fast forward 15 years and here’s an email I received from a member the other day – a timely reminder, for me, that what we now take for granted wasn’t always a given…
“Why is it that
too many people prefer to 'do without' hearing aids? A friend who’d spent
thousands on private aids – and never wore them – finally got NHS ones. His
face said it all (once he'd got used to the noise!) and he wondered why he
hadn't got them years ago. I thank God for the technology – but also thanks to
the wonderful NHS because I can hear again… And it didn't cost me a penny!”