NHS postcode lottery of care for 10 million hard of hearing

By Steve Taggart

Two in five NHS audiology departments (41%) are being forced to cut core services due to shrinking budgets or increased demand, affecting hundreds of thousands of people across the UK, according to a new report by charity Action on Hearing Loss launched today (26 January).

Over half of over 60 year olds (55%) are already affected by some form of hearing loss and, with an ageing population, the number of people who will need help with their hearing loss is set to soar in coming years.

Freedom of Information requests, issued by the charity to every NHS adult audiology service in the UK, reveal that the NHS is already struggling to cope with reduced staff numbers, restricted access to hearing aids and patients facing longer waiting times for shorter appointments – yet the charity’s report reveals a fifth (19%) of NHS hearing loss services are aware of further budget cuts in the next 12 months.

Paul Breckell, Action on Hearing Loss’ Chief Executive, said:

“Making short-term savings by reducing the quality and availability of life-changing hearing services is a false economy that will lead to higher NHS and social care costs in the long run. The personal cost of these cuts could be even higher for the one in six people affected, with untreated hearing loss leading to social isolation, unemployment and dementia amongst other health conditions. Rather than a postcode lottery of care, we need a forward-thinking plan that will enable frontline staff to deliver every patient the advice and support that they have the right to expect from our NHS.”

Action on Hearing Loss’s report, Under Pressure, shows that one of the most likely parts of NHS audiology services to be cut is follow-up appointments[iii], which provide essential adjustments to help the two out of three people who initially struggle with their hearing aids.[iv] Already over half of providers (51%) do not offer face to face follow-up appointments yet, with £83 million spent on hearing aid fittings each year,[v] the charity is warning that taxpayers’ money will go to waste if services do not provide patients with the post-fitting support that they need to continue using their hearing aids effectively.

Louise Hart, a NHS Audiologist who also works for the charity, said:

“Hearing aids should not be a sticking-plaster solution for hearing loss; you cannot issue them and send patients on their way without follow-up as with sight loss and glasses. Most of my patients need a couple of follow-up appointments to help them adjust to their hearing aids, and we know that cutting these reduces patients’ use of hearing aids, so it is crucial that audiologists are enabled to do their job properly and ensure that people have hearing aids that actually work in their day to day lives.”

Other key findings from Under Pressure include:

    One in six providers (16%) have been hit by the double whammy of budget cuts when increased demand was already forcing them to reduce their services

    39 per cent of providers say that hearing aid repairs and replacements were delivered by trained third sector volunteers in their area, highlighting the vital role that voluntary organisations play in helping audiology services reach communities.

    Two out of seven health boards in Wales and four further NHS Trusts in England have restricted the number of hearing aids they issue, meaning that the majority of patients in these areas with hearing loss in both ears will not receive two hearing aids

    Action on Hearing Loss is calling on The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and the government to protect NHS hearing loss services by developing and rolling out national quality standards, so that local NHS providers have evidence-based guidance and adequate support to meet the needs of deaf and hard of hearing people across the UK. People can get behind the charities call by contacting their local MP at actiononhearingloss.org.uk/underpressure .

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