I’ve recently been fitted with NHS hearing aids. I was given a choice of audiology services – I could go to a high street shop, or I could have an appointment at my local community hospital. I believe in the NHS. I’m opposed to people making a profit out of healthcare. So I plumped for the local hospital.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered, at my appointment, that it wasn’t an NHS service at all. Shropshire Clinical Commissioning Group have commissioned a private company, Regional Hearing Specialists (RHS), to provide audiology services.
On the face of it, RHS are a small company with headquarters in Cornwall, and only formed in March 2013. But they are a subsidiary of a large conglomerate. In the UK they are owned by Bloom Hearing Specialists who run a chain of high street stores selling hearing aids and accessories. Bloom, in turn, are owned by a Danish company, Widex. According to the Financial Times, “Widex is among the world’s six largest manufacturers of hearing aids, with a global market share of about 10 per cent.”
So my choice wasn’t really between a high street shop and the NHS – it was between two massive commercial chains.
Why does it matter? Well, the hearing aids are free, but the private companies make their profits from the fees they get from the initial testing and fitting. Providing NHS aftercare, a key benefit of NHS services, just eats into their profit margins. I was offered a home repair kit at £20 so I could do my own maintenance on my hearing aids. And I was given an order form to take away so I could mail order cleaning materials from RHS. It wasn’t suggested that I buy stuff from voluntary organisations. Action on Hearing Loss (the new name for the Royal National Institute for the Deaf) offers similar items to RHS but they cost a third less. RHS don’t want me to come back with any maintenance issues – they want to sell me over-priced “accessories” instead.
RHS prominently display the NHS logo on all their materials. Patients could be forgiven for thinking that they really are the NHS. If the NHS tells us we need to buy expensive cleaning tissues, many of us will, even if we can’t really afford to. So the service moves from “free at the point of delivery” to “additional charges at the point of delivery.”
That breaks all the ethos of the NHS. As the doctor’s journal, the Lancet, said in an editorial in the 1940’s during the debate on the founding of the NHS:
“The truth is that the doctor-patient relationship in its modern form needs improvement rather than preservation: it can never be wholly satisfactory while the doctor is not only a friend in need but also a friend in need of his patient’s money; nor while there is competition rather than co-operation between him and his colleagues.”
Successive Governments have brought competition and a quest for profits into the NHS. The Lancet was right over 60 years ago. Healthcare is too precious to be left to the market.