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Tuesday, 18 January, 2000, 11:40 GMT
Hi-tech hearing aids free on NHS

Only analogue hearing aids are currently available on the NHS
Hi-tech digital hearing aids will be available for the first time on the NHS, a health minister has announced.

Pilot schemes to distribute the digital hearing aids are being set up at 20 locations - if they are successful, it could be extended nationwide.

The announcement follows a lengthy campaign by deaf charities to force the government to switch from old-fashioned analogue hearing aids to more modern models.

Many deaf and hard of hearing people have been forced to pay hundreds or even thousands of pounds in the past to buy them privately.

Health minister John Hutton made the announcement on the BBC's "Watchdog Healthcheck" programme on Monday.

The difference between analogue and digital hearing aids is pronounced, say users - the equivalent of changing from a record player to CDs.

In particular, analogue users often find it difficult to hear conversations if there are high levels of background noise, for example at a party.

While a digital aid does not confer perfect hearing, it copes far better with these situations.

70s technology

The analogue aids, which are much cheaper, were mostly designed back in the 70s and 80s.

The news has been welcomed by the Royal National Institute for the Deaf, one of those which has campaigned on the issue.

At present, 120,000 people in the UK go private and pay the market price for their digital hearing aids. They account for less than one in five patients, but spend double the NHS hearing aid budget.

There are an estimated 8.7m deaf and hard of hearing people in the UK. The vast majority of deaf people get their hearing aids free of from the NHS.

The private aids can cost as much as 2,000.

James Strachan, chief executive of the RNID said: "This is tremendous news and a real victory for deaf and hard of hearing people.

"It will ultimately benefit literally millions of people and bring the NHS hearing aid service into the 21st century."

He added: "The NHS is the largest purchaser of hearing aids in the world, and, with a new, more strategic approach, has the ability to achieve dramatic price reductions through bulk purchasing.

"Never before has there been a better prospect within the NHS to bridge such an obvious inequality."

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