The median waiting time for a diagnostic audiology assessment, including hearing assessment, is 52 weeks at the Medway NHS Trust, which includes the area of Gravesham. The average for England is 16 weeks.
Does the Minister think that the Government will hit their own target of six weeks to initial assessment by 2008, given that now some of my constituents are waiting up to 12 months? Has he thought about the distressing effect of such waits, especially on the elderly?
The length of waiting times in the hon. Gentleman’s local trust and in some others is entirely unacceptable. That is why we have a target of a maximum wait for assessment of six weeks to be achieved everywhere by March 2008. It is also the reason why, in March, I issued the new audiology framework, which is essentially a strong message to every trust in the country that they must reduce waiting times to the level achieved by the best PCTs, which is already happening in many parts of the country.
That is exactly the kind of innovative and imaginative process that was suggested in the framework that we issued in March. In every locality, the most effective way of reducing waiting times for assessment and the fitting of hearing aids should be deployed. Where that imagination and innovation is to be found, we need to learn about it, and we need to ensure that it is mainstream throughout the system. As the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) said, not having access to appropriate hearing services is distressing for people, and it affects their quality of life; that is why the issue is so important.
The Royal National Institute for Deaf People estimates that over 500,000 people are waiting to have hearing aids fitted. In many parts of the country, people are waiting far more than a year to have one fitted. Will not those who are waiting feel badly let down by last week’s announcement that the 18-week target will not be quite as watertight as we were all led to believe? Is not that yet another instance of manipulation of Government targets, as the Government knew full well that they had no chance of meeting the target?
It seems eminently sensible that when we set targets, we take account of practical issues such as the fact that patients sometimes fail to turn up and fail to co-operate with the clinicians and the health service. It would be nonsense to tell hard-working NHS professionals that they had failed to meet a target due to circumstances outside the control of either the trust or the professionals and clinicians involved. Think of the damage to morale that that would cause. The announcement made last week is entirely sensible, and it will not affect the fact that we will get waiting times down for audiology services in every part of the country.