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Digital Hearing Aids

Volume 408: debated on Tuesday 1 July 2003

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What the take-up of NHS digital hearing aids is. [122422]

By the end of May 2003, 98,540 digital hearing aids had been fitted to 62,865 people as part of the modernising hearing aid services project. We have recently announced that an additional £94 million will be made available over this and the next financial year to support national roll-out of a modernised hearing aid service providing digital hearing aids.

I welcome my hon. Friend to her new post and wish her well in it. I also welcome what the Government are doing on digital hearing aids, but I must tell her that it is not happening quickly enough in North Staffordshire. Does she agree that there is an unsung hero in North Staffordshire—my constituent, Mr. Longstaff—who will not be satisfied until everyone who needs a digital hearing aid can get one? He does not want people to have to wait until 2005. Could the Minister contact the Treasury and ask whether it could free up the £10 million or so in balances that existed under the old health authority? If we could free up that money and get it moving over to the new primary care trusts more quickly, we could roll out the digital hearing aid programme that much more quickly for constituents in North Staffordshire.

I thank my hon. Friend for her kind comments and welcome, and I understand the point that her constituent makes. The programme that we have set in train on digital hearing aids has been widely welcomed. I understand that the North Stoke primary care trust is commissioning this work on behalf of the other four PCTs in the area, working with the local service provider—the University hospital of North Staffordshire—and the project team. Funding is being examined and they are trying to establish how best to provide those services as quickly as possible. In fact, we look to PCTs to provide only about 25 per cent. of the funding; in a typical area, that will amount to about £6,000 per PCT. In view of the increase in PCT funding, we believe that they should try to match the 75 per cent. provided centrally to help introduce the service.

I too congratulate the hon. Lady on her appointment and I am sure that she will add sparkle to the Front-Bench team and do very well. She will be aware that digital hearing aids can help people to stay in work and revolutionise people's lives. Is she aware of the disappointment in west Norfolk that the Queen Elizabeth hospital was not part of either the first or the second pilot scheme? Can she give us any idea of when my constituents will be able to get these worthwhile and important aids?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. Digital hearing aids will be in place by March 2005. It has been done in waves, with different trusts signing up to the programme at different times, but it obviously takes time because various things have to take place. The proper equipment must be installed and audiologists must be trained. We need to ensure that, once the service goes out, it is able to deal with people's individual needs. I hope that the hon. Gentleman's constituents will accept that we are moving as quickly as we can. No one would be happier than we if it could be done more quickly, but real practical problems must be addressed. Nevertheless, the service should be rolled out nationally by April 2005.

I welcome my hon. Friend to her new position and I also welcome the fact that, as a result of the Government's investment in the health service on an unprecedented scale, this technology has been made available. However, is she aware of age-based discrimination in certain areas where older people who have old-style analogue hearing aids are not receiving the new digital aids? Will she make it clear that the Government will not tolerate that sort of discrimination in any NHS trust, and that the service should be freely available at the point of use so that older people can have access to digital aids?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I completely agree that there should be no discrimination. The approach taken has been that people who require new hearing aids or are obtaining them for the first time have been prioritised for digital hearing aids. Provision is then worked through so that people who have had hearing aids longest get the new ones, and that may be people who have had them four years, then three years, then two. We are renewing the oldest analogue hearing aids by replacing them with digital hearing aids. That may be why my hon. Friend's constituent believes there is discrimination, but that is not the case. We are simply working through the system to deal first with those who have had hearing aids longest before we move on to others.

I add my welcome to the Minister, but while she has a fresh pair of eyes, will she look again at the facts behind her brief? Her words will sound hollow to people like my constituent Tony Warner, who is 83 and who had to wait 23 months to have a digital hearing aid fitted because of the lack of audiological technicians in the area. Does she realise that it is no good making digital hearing aids available if there is no one available to fit them? The hearing aids must be fitted by technically qualified people, but the number of audiological technicians qualifying last year was half the number in the previous year. The gap between supply and demand is widening, and the waiting lists will lengthen, not shorten.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. I understand his constituent's frustration at any delay. As I have said, we are moving as quickly as we can to institute proper training and to put equipment in different areas. The hon. Gentleman has certainly drawn attention to a real problem in the training of audiologists. We have instituted new training programmes in recognition of the fact that there is a difficulty, and we are working with other sectors to see whether more can be done to train people. There is a difficulty, but we are working hard to redress it. I hope that that will give some comfort to the hon. Gentleman's constituent.

Does my hon. Friend accept that many people who are partially deaf, as I am, have stopped using the analogue hearing aids issued by the national health service because they pick up too much noise that we do not want to hear, meaning that we cannot hear what we do want to hear? We want the new generation of digital hearing aids to be introduced as soon as possible because they make a great difference to what people hear.

Yes, I am well aware of the differences between analogue and digital, although it might be quite handy in this place to hear some things and not others. My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. It is absolutely true that the new digital hearing aids allow much greater personalised tuning to serve the problem of the person concerned. Through computerisation, people are better able to adjust the hearing aids to deal with particular problems. My hon. Friend is right to say that we need to have systems in place as soon as possible, and I assure him that that is what we are working to do.

I too welcome the Minister to her post. She has had a remarkable first outing. By the way, the jacket that I am wearing is not a hospital jacket, so she need not worry too much about that.

May I press the Minister on the timing of the roll-out programme? Will Queen Mary's hospital in Sidcup, which has its service provided by Lewisham, be dealt with at an early stage of that programme? The hospital feels that it is getting postcode treatment and facilities at the moment, and I hope that it will be dealt with early rather than at the tail end in 2005.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments; I assure him that he has no need to apologise for his white coat.

I understand that there will be concerns about the roll-out in different areas, but as I said, we have worked closely with primary care trusts in different areas to ensure that the programme can be properly met by 2005. We are encouraging other areas to come forward; we shall then work closely with them to ensure that they have the proper training and equipment so that, once the service is up and running, they can deal with people quickly and ensure that they have the benefits of digital hearing aids.