|What are your views on Digital Hearing Aids, and what are the Governments?
15 Oct 2001
I am well aware of the problems facing those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Waiting times for hearing tests and hearing aids have actually lengthened over the past two years. And some patients wait up to twenty-four months to receive hearing aids. Many elderly patients in particular are condemned to the loss of independence which hearing impairment brings. The tragedy is not simply that many of these elderly patients will be mis-diagnosed as confused, but that their real health problem could be treated but is not.
Hearing aids used by the NHS are largely manufactured in China, the cheapest available, and use 1970ís analogue technology. Currently digital hearing aids have a very low availability which means that an unacceptably large number of people are condemned to hearing loss which might otherwise be rectified.
Before the last election, my Party announced its proposals for the treatment of hearing loss. We promised that a Conservative Government would, as part of our planned increase in health spending, ensure that funds were made available to provide digital hearing aids available to everyone who needs one. The cost of doing this, and to clear the current backlog, would be around £60 million per year for the next three years, and decreasing thereafter. To put this figure into perspective, it is less than this Governmentís advertising bill for the first three months of this year. It is time we got our priorities right.
This is the response I received from the Minister of State.
We recognise how important it is that the NHS should provide a full range of services for children and adults who may have problems with their hearing. These services include hearing tests. the provision of modem hearing aids, and follow-up care. When I spoke at the RNm conference on 19 October, I made it clear that the Department of Health is working in partnership with the Royal National Institute for Deaf People to test out the benefits of providing leading edge digital hearing aids on the NHS as part of a modemised service. We have been trying out new ideas at 20 NHS Trusts across the country and in the 12 months between the scheme starting and the end of September, over 10,500 aids had been fitted and almost 13,000 people assessed on the NHS. This is the first time that digital hearing aids have been provided for NHS patients on this scale, supported by the introduction of high tech equipment and a modem service that looks at their individual need. More people are benefiting every day and by next March as many as 18,000 people could have a digital aid. The results are be1ng evaluated by the Institute ofHearing Research (lliR) and the findings will help to inform planning to make these changes available mere widely in the NHS. We have already earmarked funds to do this, subject to favourable evaluation, but we need to address other key issues around additional patient demand and NHS capacity to deliver change. We will shortly begin to test out ways to involve the private sector -to support NHS audiology departments and boost NHS capacity to deliver benefits as quickly as possible, to as many people as possible. We appreciate that people want digital aids to be available everywhere, now. However, we must ensure that we make the right aids available and have the infrastructure in place to deliver not just the hearing aids themselves but the support structures that will ensure that people who get these hearing aids can get the maximum possible benefits from them.