Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The end of NHS hearing aids?

This morning, as I was trying to stop a snoring woman on the bus from dribbling on my shoulder, I saw a tweet from @ActionOnHearing saying:


Help us keep hearing aids free on the NHS by joining our online protest!

and I was immediately filled with horror that such a service might be cut. First I responded, tweeting:

if hearing aids weren't free I wouldn't be
wearing them right now. It's an amazing privilege

Then I started to research the story more. And, with the help of Action On Hearing Loss, here's what I found out: 
  • The cuts are proposed for North Staffordshire by the North Staffordshire Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG). 
  • They would affect adults who are considered to have a mild to moderate age-related hearing loss – known as presbyacusis.
  • NHS hearing tests will still be free for these people.
  • People who already have hearing aids will not have them taken away.
  • If a person's hearing loss deteriorates further, they will become eligible for hearing aids.
  • The savings will be around £1.2 million.
I do not have an age-related hearing loss. I have a severe to profound hearing loss. I do not live in North Staffordshire. This does not affect me.

And yet, it does.

Because hearing loss – whether mild, moderate or severe – can change people's lives forever. Especially if they've spent most of their adult lives being able to hear.

A couple of years ago, I wrote quite a few blogs about my Ma. She was losing her hearing (in part, age related) and struggling enormously to come to terms with it. But it wasn't just that. She was struggling to function in a world that suddenly seemed unfamiliar.

She was given hearing aids on the NHS and I watched her go through the same process of frustration and hatred for them that my 10-year-old self had gone through. You see, not all hearing aids help all people.

According to an Action On Hearing Aid fact sheet, private hearing aids cost between £300 and £3,000. 

As a deaf person I am on my seventh pair of hearing aids. In the 20 years that I have had hearings aids, these are the only pair that have helped me. That I have worn. The rest have lived in drawers, coat pockets and handbags and have eventually been returned to my audiologist, except for one pair, which may have ended up down the loo. 

*whistles innocently

So if people like my Ma are asked to stump up the cash to buy their hearing aids, how do they know that the pair they are spending up to £3,000 on will actually help? Is there a try- before-you-buy service? Is there a satisfaction guarantee? 

I understand that the NHS cannot fund the entire country's healthcare needs. I understand that postcode lotteries cannot be prevented and that sometimes the people in charge of the money have to say, 'You know what? Your needs are not as important as that person's needs.' But if you are the person they are saying that to, and you're isolated by hearing loss, it will probably feel very unfair.

And I don't know what the answer is.

What I do know is that, if the cuts do happen, there's a good chance that people with age-related hearing losses are going to stay that way. In fact. the website Patient.co.uk goes as far as to say:

'Untreated presbyacusis leads to social isolation, and depression, and
may cause or worsen cognitive impairment and dementia.'

And you have to wonder about the financial implications of that...

As a deaf person I feel incredibly isolated sometimes. I feel incredibly stupid sometimes too, when I mishear, mispronounce or misunderstand.

My hearing aids help prevent more of that than I probably realise.

I also feel incredibly lucky to be sat here wearing my Phonak Nathos hearing aids with Sound Recover. The hearing aids that have given me back sounds like phone ring tones, cats meowing, London Aunt's doorbell and the very smallest hint of office chitchat. They are absolutely the best hearing aids I could have. Or at least they were when I got them nearly two years ago. And I love them.

Maybe there are other solutions. Perhaps, if cuts are really unavoidable, NHS hearing aids for age-related hearing loss could be leased for a small (manageable and interest-free) monthly payment. Perhaps they could be like a mobile phone contract. And actually, hearing aids are not the only thing that helps age-related hearing loss. But is there is funding to explore the other options listed in this article on Patient.co.uk?
 
But my fear is, what if the cuts don't stop there? What is the future of free hearing aids?

If I had to stump up £3,000 for my hearing aids, would I bother? Or would I make do?

Would I go back to no cats, no ringtones, no doorbells and not a hint of office chitchat?

And the sad thing is, I probably would.

I will always try and support any campaigns about free hearing aids. But I also want to know, if free hearing aids are saved, what will be cut instead? Who will lose out to make the neccessary savings?

When I find out, I'll let you know.

DGx