As one of its final acts before the election campaign began, last month the government released a major new strategy to improve services for people confronting deafness, tinnitus and hearing loss. The 'Action Plan on Hearing Loss' makes clear that hearing loss is a major public health issue, and calls for action across government and beyond to improve early diagnosis, service quality and levels of provision.
The Action Plan is ambitious - it sets out plans to improve services and to tackle the postcode lottery in hearing services across England, and it commits NHS England to produce much needed national guidance for local commissioners to ensure they supply the right services for people who are deaf or have hearing loss.
This is a clear signal that commissioners should take hearing loss seriously - and a major message of the election campaign so far from all the parties is that they are against rationing of NHS services. This makes the recently announced plans by North Staffordshire clinical commissioning group to stop providing free NHS hearing aids for most people who will benefit - I wrote about it in March - even more perverse. It is clear that some CCGs just do not understand hearing loss or the effects it can have on a person's ability to communicate, work and stay healthy.
Commissioners need to understand that cutting services for the one in six people with hearing loss across England will cost much more in the long term. Not providing people with hearing aids will mean they are less able to hear or communicate with family, friends, colleagues and health professionals, and are more likely to become isolated and develop depression. They are therefore more likely to require more costly support from health and social care services. The price of a hearing aid - the NHS pays on average £90 - is very cost effective given the difference we know it can make.
The previous government was keen that the Action Plan on Hearing Loss should lead to real change. It committed to review progress annually against the commitments made, and stated that if commissioners do not improve their services for people with hearing loss then NHS England would have the power to intervene.
We are welcoming the Action Plan, and we are calling on all commissioners, including North Staffordshire, to take it seriously. If politicians of all parties are really against rationing of services, then they should show their support as well and the next government, of whatever make-up, should embrace the Action Plan.