It’s no accident that the UK has one of the highest uptakes of hearing aids in the world. We are, as a nation, in the extremely privileged position that rich or poor, we have access to the care, treatment, technology and audiology support that many cannot afford out of their own pocket.
Since before the NHS’s inception in 1948, Action on Hearing Loss – or the National Institute of the Deaf, as we were then called – lobbied on behalf of those living with hearing loss to ensure their needs were met. For 70 years we have worked as a close partner and a critical friend, helping improve audiology and other health services through the decades to where we are now.
We were, for instance, instrumental in ensuring hearing aids were provided by the NHS from the outset. In the 1960s, we worked with the Department of Health to ensure more people got their hearing checked, encouraging people to go to their doctor. In the 1970s we successfully campaigned to make behind-the-ear hearing aids available on the NHS.
Fast forward to the 1990s, we helped drive two more significant developments. Firstly, that the delivery of audiology services were captured in the landmark 18 week waiting time targets set by the government for the NHS. Secondly – and this is something that as an organisation we’re enormously proud of – we were instrumental on the introduction of digital hearing aids being made available to all, for free. We made the case to hearing aid manufacturers that the NHS’s purchasing power made it totally viable to provide them, and since then top quality technology has been made available to all.
More recently, we co-produced the Government’s Action Plan on Hearing Loss, and helped make the case to the National Institute for Health and Care (NICE) that guidance on hearing loss in adults needs to be available. These are huge breakthroughs when we still live in a context where hearing loss is still, by many, not considered a serious health condition despite the considerable impact it has on people’s lives and its prevalence globally.
Our work has extended far beyond influencing policy and provision, though. As is often the case, where the public sector ends, the voluntary sector steps in, and we’ve been a prime example. From providing care and support services to people who are deaf with additional needs, to having hubs across the UK offering hearing aid assistance, we’ve been on the front line helping those with deafness and hearing loss. We’re also the largest charitable funder in the world of biomedical research, dedicated to finding treatments for hearing loss and tinnitus, funding work across the globe to find alternatives to hearing aids and improve hearing tests, and making sure that the latest technology and treatments are available on the NHS for those who want them. It was funding from Action on Hearing Loss, for instance, that helped develop the technology now used to screen for deafness and hearing loss in all newborn babies.
There is much to celebrate on this seminal anniversary, but that’s not to say there aren’t challenges. In a difficult economic climate, the increasingly devolved health service has been under pressure to make savings. As an organisation, we have been fighting cuts to hearing aid provision across England proposed by Clinical Commissioning Groups, and have seen increasing waiting times and variation in service across the UK. While we hope to see the recent NICE guidelines implemented and variation in services cease, Action on Hearing Loss will continue to monitor, lobby and campaign on these issues.
The NHS is a twentieth century miracle that we should celebrate. Its impact on the lives of those with hearing loss cannot be understated. Quite simply, without the provision of free hearing aids and without the audiology services available, there would have been more early retirements, more people living with isolation, and ultimately more people living less fulfilling lives. I am proud that we live in a country where these services are available and prouder still that Action on Hearing Loss has been – and will continue to be – there every step of the way doing our part alongside the NHS for people who are deaf, have tinnitus and hearing loss.