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TX: 24.08.06 - Digital Hearing Aids

PRESENTER: CAROLYN ATKINSON
Downloaded from www.bbc.co.uk/radio4

THE ATTACHED TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

ATKINSON
"Digital hearing aids will be available to all by April 2005." The words of a government minister three years ago, announcing that everyone who needs one would be able to get a digital hearing aid by 2005. But despite that pledge the Royal National Institute for the Deaf says approximately half a million people are currently waiting up to three years for a digital hearing aid. Here on You and Yours we've been reporting on hearing aid services since the late 1990s and the weight appears to be getting longer. The Department of Health itself admits that a quarter of a million people are waiting for hearing tests and most of those will go on to need an aid. Well David Turner from Norfolk is one of them. He's totally deaf in one ear and has severe hearing loss in the other and he finds his current analogue aid is not adequate. He and his wife Eva took time out from a shopping trip in Norwich to explain the effect his wait is having on his life.

ACTUALITY - ORDERING AT A CAFÉ

DAVID TURNER
I've been waiting for a digital aid for three years. I'm not happy about it.

ATKINSON
Do you feel angry about this?

DAVID TURNER
Sorry?

ATKINSON
Do you feel angry about this?

DAVID TURNER
Well yeah I am quite but it is like hitting a wet blanket - you don't know who to blame.

ATKINSON
And how is it affecting your quality of life by not …

DAVID TURNER
Well it is, it makes it very difficult for me wife, they're the greatest sufferers in this - the partners - because I can't hear everything she says, I can hear more because I know her voice but I have to keep asking her to repeat things. It's now become almost a habit.

EVA TURNER
Actually we could go up into the library while we're here.

DAVID TURNER
What did you say?

EVA TURNER
We could go up into the library while we're here. I know there's a lot of background noise and the clattering.

DAVID TURNER
Yeah, that might be better.

EVA TURNER
If we go up there we could possibly get some sort of books to read because there's an awful lot of stuff we don't want to watch on television because we haven't got the subtitles.

DAVID TURNER
Didn't quite follow that.

ATKINSON
Have you thought about buying a digital aid privately?

DAVID TURNER
Oh yes I have but I'm 71 and I'm a strong believer in the health service and friends have said why don't you buy one, you're only - your quality of life is fairly - but I've stuck to me principles and I haven't bought one, I can afford to buy one, although they're very expensive.

ATKINSON
And how much longer are you prepared to wait?

DAVID TURNER
Well I don't know, I mean I think that if something doesn't happen within six months that puts me at three and a half years then I'm going to - well I'll create a stink I suppose if I can.

ATKINSON
David and Eva Turner.

Well John Lowe is the chief executive of the RNID, he says people who are hearing impaired are being ignored by the NHS, not least because audiology was not included in the recent 18 week waiting time targets.

LOWE
We're really deeply concerned that here's a service that's under-funded, we've got huge waiting times at the moment with incredible numbers of people on the lists, nobody's even recording or publishing them. And along comes a great initiative to control the waiting time in the NHS and the Department of Health specifically excludes hearing aid services from that list. So the resources will go elsewhere, the situation that's already dire will get much worse.

ATKINSON
And what's your theory on why it has not been included on the list?

LOWE
Well it's not for me to theorise but I guess simply the numbers are huge and they couldn't meet the target. And when you're designing a system and you know you can't succeed then best to face the flack now than actually promise to meet the target and fail down the line.

ATKINSON
But the RNID had a role in the modernisation programme, you joined forces with the Department of Health and you said you would help roll out this modernisation programme - so what do you say to people who say the RNID has failed in what it was meant to do?

LOWE
Well the role that we had was to modernise the service, so now we have good quality hearing aids being fitted well to people, getting excellent outcomes for those individuals. The work that we did was never a waiting time initiative. The services had long waits before the modernisation programme, still have long waits now. While we continue to give it a low priority, put inadequate funding into it, it will continue, it doesn't matter how good the service is, in terms of waiting time, without the resources, without the priority, without the focus nothing will happen, nothing will change.

ATKINSON
So to those 500,000 people who are waiting for either their first aid or an upgrade to a digital aid what do you think the Department of Health should be doing to try and crack this problem now and to prevent the waiting time getting even longer?

LOWE
There's a whole range of things that they could do. They could make more resources available - that's money. They could make more capacity available by reorganising the way they work, by changing the scale mix of staff. They could use the private sector. There's a whole armoury of tools available if the NHS wishes to change.

ATKINSON
Are you saying then the will is not there for audiology - hearing is seen as a sort of poor relation of the NHS, it's not cancer, it's not something that needs tackling immediately because it's not going to kill someone?

LOWE
It is a low priority for the NHS, for every PCT, for every NHS acute trust that's delivering services, there's no doubt that NHS audiology hearing aid services are down the bottom of the list. If you are judged on one thing and not judged on another where will you put your resources?

ATKINSON
John Lowe, the chief executive of the RNID.

Well joining us from our Sheffield studio is the older people's tsar Professor Ian Philp. Professor Philp, down the bottom of the list, why are hearing aid services being left out in the cold?

PHILP
Well I agree with John that the situation is not at all satisfactory and I highlighted in my report to government in March this year that there were a number of conditions that affect older people that need to be given high priority. Starting with hearing services but also for foot care, for vision services, for falls and bone health and so on. So what are we going to do about it is the question.

ATKINSON
Well why was audiology missed off this 18 week waiting time target?

PHILP
Well it was missed off for a simple reason that the 18 week target refers to the hospital pathway and those aspects of hearing services that require a hospital consultant assessment, for example people with ringing in the ears and hearing loss, are subject to the 18 week pathway. Referral to community audiology services are not subject to the 18 week pathway and that's not just for hearing services, it's other services as well. So the government are putting in a hearing action plan to look at ways in which we can speed up these totally unsatisfactory waiting times …

ATKINSON
Because we have David Turner here waiting three years, saying he'll just about hang on for three and a half, he's 71 years old and his whole life - his social life, his quality of life - is ruined.

PHILP
Well absolutely, that's why hearing services have to become a higher priority because hearing loss is not just important from the point of view of communication difficulty, it leads to isolation, in some cases to depression and to unnecessary dependency…

ATKINSON
Agreeing is one thing, doing something to change it is entirely another, what is being done?

PHILP
What is being done is that £120 million have been put in to improve access to and availability of digital hearing aids. As a result of the fantastic work of the RNID demand is going up by 25% per year, whereas the actual - the need is going up at about 1% by year, so people are switching into the modern services.

ATKINSON
But this backlog is getting bigger, not smaller and we also have an anomaly which the DoH itself accepts, I've got the document here. They're saying because the ear, nose and throat consultants are included on this 18 week waiting list, GPs will suddenly - it will dawn on them send somebody off to the ENT person then you'll get a hearing aid.

PHILP
Well what we want to see is people getting timely access to hearing aid services by the correct pathway, not having to go through the hospital route. There are about six million people that could benefit from digital hearing aids in this country. The money is going in, I'm going to be producing a key facts guide for primary care trusts, who will be commissioning these services later this year and the government have set up a modernising hearing aid action plan team which will involve the RNID to try and crack this. But can I just reiterate? It is totally unsatisfactory that people like David have to wait so long for their analogue aids and I'm going to do everything I can to ensure that we sort this problem.

ATKINSON
Okay Professor Ian Philp thank you very much indeed.




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