asked Her Majesty's Government:
Whether they are proposing to modernise National Health Service hearing aids to close the technological gap between them and privately bought hearing aids.
My Lords, I can assure my noble friend that the Government appreciate the importance of effective modern hearing aids and how vital they are to millions of people. The NHS has made progress in the past few years in providing more up-dated aids, such as high frequency and mini-aids. However, as I am sure my noble friend is aware, different people have very different requirements and demands to help deal with their hearing difficulties. It has been difficult for the NHS to establish sufficiently broad criteria for successful improvements as regards bulk purchases of any one type of new aid and making them cost-effective. We hope that this kind of assessment of new technology will become easier and improve once the National Institute for Clinical Excellence is established during the next year.
My Lords, I have no personal interest to declare because I use a cochlear implant. However, despite her Answer, is my noble friend aware that the overwhelming majority of NHS patients using hearing aids—some 99 per cent.—do not have those specially adapted and improved hearing aids; indeed, they have the old-fashioned aids? They lack modern developments such as automatic adjustment, the multi-direction microphone and the reduction of background noise, all of which are important and are all embodied in private hearing aids. Therefore, bearing in mind what my noble friend said about bulk buying and the fact that it is the biggest buyer of hearing aids in the world, why can the NHS not use its strength as a bulk buyer to buy more modern hearing aids at bargain basement prices?
My Lords, I appreciate my noble friend's great interest and expertise in the area. As President of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, I believe that he will be aware that it is precisely because Ministers in the Department of Health were concerned about the points that he raises that a national working group was set up last September by the NHS Executive. It is now working on the outcome of those deliberations and is to put a ministerial proposal to my honourable friends the Minister for Public Health and the Minister for community health during the next few weeks. It is to be hoped that some of the improvements that my noble friend mentioned will come out of those discussions.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that many of the problems with hearing aids might in some ways be ameliorated if more attention were paid to teaching people how to use them properly? Indeed, it was brought to my attention that only about 10 per cent. know that they have something called a "T' switch on their hearing aid which can help cut out background noise. Surely teaching people how to use their hearing aids properly would be a much better way of progressing if we cannot purchase the exact up-to-date equipment.
My Lords, the noble Lord makes a most important point. It is the inexpert or perhaps one should say ill-informed use of some of the equipment which seems to lead to it not functioning in the way that it might do at its optimum. One of the issues that the NHS has to consider is the expense of specialised training for audiology departments of NHS trusts which may be providing such services. That is an extra expense which must be considered when one is looking at the upgrading of the whole service.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that the RNID has found that about 3 million people who could benefit from having a hearing aid do not in fact have one? Indeed, many people lack awareness of the potential benefits of hearing aids and of their limitations. That also applies to many GPs, who consequently fail to refer people on to NHS hearing aid services. Therefore, will the Government consider how both patients and professionals might become better informed in that area?
My Lords, I believe that this was one of the subjects discussed in the national working group to which I referred. As the noble Earl may be aware, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People was part of that working group. I am sure that the institute made those points very clear in the discussions with the Department of Health.
My Lords, I believe that modern hearing aids are a great deal more expensive than the old-fashioned ones. Therefore, can the Minister assure the House that it is not cost which is controlling this service?
My Lords, there are resource issues involved, as I said in response to the noble Lord who asked about the knowledge of and training for people using hearing aids. Indeed, there is a wide range of expenses as regards providing hearing assistance to many people. We are trying to achieve the most cost-effective service for a large number of people—I believe several million—who could benefit in this way. Clearly cost has to be a factor; but cost-effectiveness is the most reasonable thing to try to achieve.