THE BLOG

NHS: Robbing Peter to Pay Paul (Not Me...)

23/03/2015 12:11 GMT | Updated 20/05/2015 10:59 BST

According to this week's Budget speech, satisfaction with the NHS is rising year on year.

While the NHS can be incredible in a crisis - as I discovered when a close friend, in his early forties, went from complaining of headaches and dizzy spells to, 48 hours later, having lifesaving brain surgery - there are other, unsung services that are facing unprecedented cuts.

Just last week, a local Clinical Commissioning Group, in North Staffordshire, announced that they would no longer provide hearing aids to two-thirds of the local people who need them.

Their announcement comes despite the express dissatisfaction of thousands of people - both members of the public and healthcare professionals - who spent months campaigning to overturn the plans.

Hearing aids have been available on the NHS since its inception, almost 70 years ago, yet, from October, hearing aids will only be available for people in North Staffordshire whose hearing loss has deteriorated to the clinically-diagnosed 'severe' stage, by which time it is much harder for the brain to adapt to the device being attached to their ears.

If these people had been given hearing aids when they were first diagnosed with 'mild' or 'moderate' hearing loss - as every other person across the UK, outside of North Staffordshire, still are - they would be able to reap the full benefits that hearing aids are designed to provide.

While the short term savings to one part of the NHS might make this an attractive prospect (saving around just £90 per hearing aid) the overall costs of withdrawing this incredibly cost effective service far outweighs the economic benefit. And that is before we even begin to consider the personal and social impact on the individuals who will be denied support in the future.

Hearing loss is a serious health issue, which, if ignored or unmanaged, can lead to social isolation, the onset of dementia and has even been linked to increased mental health problems. Hearing aids offer a lifeline to many, especially older people with hearing loss, who would otherwise be sat at home alone unable to communicate with the outside world.

I appreciate that the challenge of demographics is a serious one. With our ageing population, the number of people struggle with their hearing will soar to 14.5 million by 2031. That's one in five of us.

In her most recent annual report on the state of the nation's public health, the Chief Medical Officer emphasised its importance, highlighting that up to 10 per cent of all years lived with a disability are due to either hearing loss or sight loss.

In an exciting new world, where we are living and working longer, supporting people to manage their hearing loss will be more important than ever before.

So what are we doing to tackle this key health challenge of our time?

It seems the answer is worse than nothing. If this drastic cut announced by North Staffordshire goes ahead, we fear that other NHS CCG's could follow suit - with two in five already telling us that they are being forced to make cuts to audiology services, due to increased demand or shrinking budgets.

It really doesn't have to be this way. With a well-supported referral process, good accessible services, effective devices and fitting and consistent follow up and aftercare we already have the building blocks we need to make sure people live fulfilled and happy lives even if they are living with hearing loss.