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The debate around private hearing aids vs NHS hearing aids is in some respects a microcosm of the larger and more general debate of private vs public healthcare. Whilst the focus of this article is on hearing correction it is perhaps helpful to first dive into the larger question of private vs public. What has been clear to me for a very long time, and I suspect to the majority of the general public, is that it is unfortunate that the debate has been taken over by politics and that the area of healthcare has become an arena for a battle of competing doctrines.

Which is best, private or NHS hearing aids? The answer is neither and both. They are different things and despite what you may think when you listen to the debate being framed as a political question they both support and complement each other. Should you consider political doctrine when you make healthcare choices? I would suggest keeping those two things as far apart as you possibly can.

Private sector supports NHS

In the UK, you would have to look long and hard to find anyone who didn’t fully believe in and support the NHS but you would probably find it quite easy to come across people for who the use of the words private and healthcare in the same sentence wouldn’t raise a hackle. That is a shame. In truth, most people don’t really consider just how supportive the private sector is to the NHS or indeed just how much private provision currently exists in the NHS

When you go to your GP, the chances are you are dealing with a private organisation, run by doctors, providing NHS care under contract and receiving payment for the provision of those services from the NHS. Is that privatising the NHS? That is a phrase that has gained much use over the past decade, but what does privatising the NHS really mean? Ultimately a strong private sector supports NHS provision by reducing demand on public services, but to just say private equals good in every case and without restraint is as bad as saying that all GP surgeries are run by profit focused capitalists.

Clearly black and white positions in healthcare are not going to advance our understanding of how to deliver a diverse and effective healthcare solution for a modern world being driven by technological advancements that offer real hope for people with complex healthcare needs. Luckily, it seems there is an obvious line that we can use as a test of whether private provision is part of the solution or the thin end of the wedge. For me the NHS is much more about its founding principle of “Care, free at the point of delivery” and much less important is which style of provider, provides the service.

And yet it seems that choices do have to be made, the pot of available resources is not limitless and we need to decide what services should benefit from public funding and which should remain the exclusive domain of the private sector. With all highly complex systems, and I would suggest that the provision of healthcare for one of the most advanced countries in the world is highly complex, there are fuzzy edges and choices that need to be made.

Make the right choice for you

Choices around fuzzy edges are not a bad thing though. They promote debate and push boundaries and we should embrace the difficult and the gnarly when it comes to keeping our healthcare provision vibrant and ever advancing.

For the NHS, hearing aids are not a fuzzy choice. Provision is well supported and around 80% of hearing aids that are supplied in the UK are either provided by the NHS or by private providers who fit hearing aids on behalf of the NHS to an NHS protocol. This means that in terms of the percentage of hearing impaired people who wear some form of hearing correction, the UK leads the way and long may that continue. None of which gets us any closer to the question at hand though; should you get your hearing aids on the NHS or get them from a private provider? Are national health hearing aids the right choice for everyone? If you are faced with the choice, then you should consider the benefits of each and simply choose what is right for you.

There are differences of course. If you go the NHS route you will benefit from the fact that the provision is free but you may have to wait longer in some cases than if you were to choose the private route. Whilst the quality of the NHS hearing aid has improved greatly in recent years, systems available on the NHS represent only a tiny fraction of the solutions that are available privately and your choice of style will in most cases be limited to a Behind the Ear (BTE) or Receiver in Canal (RIC) style solution. Neither of which are bad choices in and of themselves but there are other choices available in many cases. Assessment protocols available on the NHS tend to focus on hearing tests alone, whereas wider assessments around the effect that a hearing loss can have on the ability of a patient to listen and communicate, are very powerful in highlighting the need for Assistive Listening Devices (ALDs). ALDs can be connected wirelessly to more advanced hearing aids and can offer dramatic improvements in speech understanding in noise.

So, which is the best way to go for you? My advice would be to take advantage of the choices you have and investigate both then do what feels right for you.