Why hearing aid cuts in North Staffs should be reversed

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I was completely shocked by the recent decision by North Staffordshire Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) that from September this year they will no longer provide hearing aids on the NHS to adults with a mild hearing loss, and that adults with a moderate hearing loss will have to complete a questionnaire, which is unnecessary and inappropriate.

Since North Staffs CCG first announced they were considering this proposal, the charity Action on Hearing Loss and a wide range of professional and patient groups opposed those plans. Over 6,500 people signed an online petition against them and local scrutiny committees rejected them, including the Healthy Staffordshire Committee.

Previously, the CCG had announced that no restrictions would be introduced until financial year 2016/2017, but on February 27th they announced that they had brought forward their meeting to 4th March and that they were allocating just ten minutes in the meeting for a discussion and decision to be made on the cuts.

The timing of this decision is particularly cynical. It seems like they brought forward the date to hide bad news when everyone is focused on the upcoming general election, and ten minutes is not enough time to consider all the evidence.

The meeting went ahead without proper consultation from the public, healthcare professionals or the wider hearing loss community. It also ignored the evidence presented by various charities, patients groups and organisations, who wholeheartedly disagree with the CCG’s decision that there is not enough evidence to support their provision for people with mild to moderate hearing loss.

There is, in fact, a wide body of evidence about the impact of this level of hearing loss on the individual and the benefits that hearing aids bring to people with mild or moderate hearing loss. This decision is estimated to potentially affect 2,500 people in North Staffordshire, for whom hearing aids are a lifeline, and without them, their quality of life will undoubtedly suffer.

Even people with a mild or moderate hearing loss often struggle to follow conversations and communicate with other people, especially when there is loud background noise. Hearing loss cuts you off from people and if it is not detected early and you are fitted with hearing aids, you are much more likely to withdraw from society, feel isolated, lose your confidence, suffer in the workplace and in many cases, experience depression and other mental health problems. There is also increased risk of dementia among elderly people, as the hearing loss worsens and remains undetected.

The recent ‘Action Plan on Hearing Loss’ report by the Department of Health and NHS England clearly stated: “Early diagnosis and intervention are key actions that should make a real difference in reducing risks and attaining better hearing health outcomes throughout life”. One of the key objectives of this Action Plan is to ensure that all people with hearing loss are diagnosed early and that they are managed effectively once diagnosed.

North Staffordshire CCG’s decision clearly contradicts the findings and key action objectives outlined in the NHS’s own Action Plan on Hearing Loss. It also contradicts its own objectives, which include improving prevention, early detection and effective management of those at increased risk, enhancing quality of life and improving health outcomes for people with long term conditions and ensuring people have the right care in the right place. Cutting hearing aids goes against all this.

I know from my own personal experience what a frightening and isolating experience it is to lose your hearing. When my hearing first began to drop about five years ago, my hearing loss was first diagnosed as moderate. At the time, I was in complete denial of my hearing loss. It took me a long time before I began to accept it and started to wear my hearing aids.

It was only through the support from my deaf and hard of hearing friends that I started to wear them and slowly realised how much they were improving my quality of life as my confidence started to grow. As my hearing loss deteriorated further, I became completely dependent on my hearing aids for everyday living and communication.

I wonder if I was diagnosed with a moderate hearing loss now, whether I would also be denied NHS hearing aids? If so, how would I possibly be able to afford expensive private hearing aids?

I also work as a volunteer, supporting NHS hearing aid users in my local community. I see a lot of elderly people coming to our clinics. Most of them have a mild or moderate hearing loss and often come to us with fairly simple hearing aid problems, but it means so much to them when we fix their hearing aids or give them advice on how to look after them. We also talk to them about the limitations of their hearing aids and how to manage their hearing loss.

I have seen these volunteer-led local hearing aid clinics grow in size and the people who use them grow in confidence over the weeks and months as they get used to using their hearing aids and feel more supported. It is important to adopt an holistic approach to supporting hearing aid users, encouraging them to use ‘every tool in the box’ to help them communicate better and not just consider them from an audiology point of view.

Most of these elderly people simply couldn’t afford costly private hearing aids, and their overall health and wellbeing would undoubtedly deteriorate rapidly without them.

As our society is ageing with more and more people over 65 years old, hearing loss is an inevitable part of the ageing process. We should embrace the needs of our older generation and support them to feel like valuable members of our society, not cut them off from the basics.

By saving money in the short-term, North Staffordshire’s CCG will find themselves facing much greater costs over the longer term, as the knock-on effects caused by increased social and mental healthcare problems accumulate. It could also set a precedent for other CCGs around the country to follow suit. Let’s hope that they see sense soon and reverse this decision.

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