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By NOAH
By NOAH

Hospitals and GPs alone do not have the capacity to help all those with hearing loss

Photo by GN Group

4 min read

It was a regular Tuesday morning, and I was on the order paper for Justice questions.

When the Speaker called out my name, everyone in the chamber had heard him. Everyone, that was, except for me. The moment of clarity came when he made eye contact and gave a nod that prompted me to my feet. “Sorry Mr. Speaker, I didn’t hear you” I said, embarrassed before proceeding to ask my question. 

This was another difficult reminder of my declining hearing loss. Like the estimated four million others living with undiagnosed hearing loss there is often a prolonged denial that comes from the stigma of confronting or accepting hearing loss perhaps for reasons of prejudice, or negative perceptions of hearing aids.

The ability to hear, listen and understand what is going on in the world around us is something many take for granted. When our ability to hear is impaired, it can impact our lives dramatically. Work becomes harder –40% of those leaving the workforce early say hearing loss is a factor. Feelings of isolation and loneliness increase – older people with hearing loss are two and half times more likely to suffer from mental ill health. If left untreated, it can even increase our risk of developing dementia – hearing loss is the single largest modifiable risk factor for dementia.

Despite this, people suffering from hearing loss delay seeking treatment by 7-10 years on average. An estimated 45% of people who need treatment for adult-onset hearing loss are not in services.  This is compounded by the ‘postcode lottery’ in access to audiology services. In many areas, the only way to access NHS audiology services is through your local hospital, following GP referral. Yet, waiting times for hospital audiology services are over 14 months in places.

Making audiology a primary care service is a simple solution to improve this access. What would this mean in practice? Just as NHS patients can access treatment for vision impairment and sight loss through their high street opticians, making audiology a primary care service would enable people to access NHS hearing care the same way. Areas such as Greater Manchester, including in my constituency of Bolton South East, have seen local NHS commissioners take the initiative and commission these services locally. But across England, these services remain patchy and inconsistent.

I have suffered from hearing loss for many years. For those, like me, who experience hearing loss at a younger age, or through injury or disease, the hospital remains the right place to receive care. However, for the vast majority of people who begin to lose their hearing as they get older, high street audiologists are best placed to provide treatment. 94% of people with adult-onset hearing loss will have uncomplicated, ‘age-related’ sensorineural hearing loss that community audiologists are fully qualified to treat. Shifting this care to the community would enable hospitals to focus their time and expertise on the 6% of people whose hearing loss is more complicated.

For those, like me, who experience hearing loss at a younger age, or through injury or disease, the hospital remains the right place to receive care

By 2035, it is estimated 14.6 million people in the UK will suffer from age-related hearing loss. Moving to a primary care model for audiology is not just about improving access to care now. It would also be a recognition that hospitals and GPs alone do not have the capacity to provide the volume of care needed for an ageing population. We need to harness the capacity that exists on our high streets to ensure the NHS can deliver early care, closer to home, and at a lower cost. Following World Hearing Day, I am calling on us to have this conversation and look at making audiology a primary care service.

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