Virtually everything we do requires some form of communication, be it at work or at home, and feeling unable to express yourself is incredibly isolating. Having worked in audiology for sixteen years, I’ve witnessed first-hand the impact that hearing loss can have on day to day living and the massive impact that hearing aids can have on people’s lives. Hearing aids have been free on the NHS since its inception in 1948, in part due to campaigning from Action on Hearing Loss, then known as the National Institute of the Deaf (N.I.D), who played a key role in ensuring that hearing aids and batteries were available on the health service from the outset. More recently, however, such services have been under threat, with cuts directly aimed at hearing aids in an effort to make savings.
Frustratingly, for many years, it has felt as though hearing loss not been taken seriously in comparison to other health conditions, despite hearing loss being the most prevalent disability globally and with numbers with hearing loss expecting to increase due to the ageing population. Hearing loss has been described as a ‘hidden epidemic’ and recent evidence suggests that hearing loss affects around half a billion people living with disabling hearing loss around the world and is the fourth most important cause of years lost through disability. In addition to this, increasing evidence links hearing loss with other co-morbidities, such as dementia. A recent Lancet Commission on dementia prevention, intervention and care identified hearing loss as the largest modifiable risk factor for dementia in people who are middle aged. However, addressed and managed hearing loss can prevent social isolation and evidence even suggests that hearing aids can reduce the risk and impact of dementia.
In October 2015, North Staffordshire Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) stopped providing hearing aids to those with mild hearing loss and limited provision for those with moderate hearing loss, acting against overwhelming public opinion and all clinical evidence. This was a huge blow to the sector and to those with hearing loss in the area. Following this, 13 further CCGs looked at similar proposals but following Action on Hearing Loss' engagement and intervention decided not to proceed with cuts, however we are aware of more subtle cuts occurring across England that we are keeping a close eye on and are greatly concerned about.
It is imperative now more than ever that our NHS audiology services are protected and people can access the vital support they need for their hearing loss so that they can communicate effectively. I am delighted that we have made great strides in getting hearing loss recognised as a major public health issue both globally and nationally and as a consequence, have in recent years, seen a number of policies and initiatives to improve and protect audiology services. Action on Hearing Loss has worked with The Government, NHS England and the National Institute for Health and Care (NICE) to produce key documents such as the Action Plan on Hearing Loss, which is the first cross Government strategy for hearing loss, NHS England’s Commissioning Framework for Adult hearing loss services and the newly published NICE guidance on hearing loss.
Recently we have celebrated the release of new NICE guideline, ‘Hearing loss in adults: assessment and management’. We campaigned for the existence of the guideline, which consists of recommendations on how to best identify, refer, diagnose, treat and manage patients with hearing loss based on the best evidence available. These guidelines specifically say that everyone whose hearing loss affects their communication should be given a hearing aid at the first possible opportunity.
While all of these documents are available, our job now – with the help of our amazing network of campaigners across the country – is to ensure that they are implemented. It’s vital that hearing care on the NHS continues to be freely available to all who need it and that there is no postcode lottery in quality and provision.