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NHS: Audiology

Volume 684: debated on Tuesday 25 July 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What is the average waiting time for audiology services in National Health Service hospitals.

My Lords, the department does not collect waiting times for hearing aid fittings. However, since January 2006, waiting time data have been collected for pure tone audiometry diagnostic tests. Those were published for the first time on 12 July. We aim to delivery audiology diagnostic tests within 13 weeks by March 2007 and within six weeks by December 2008.

My Lords, nevertheless, will my noble friend confirm that some 30,000 deaf people have had to wait for over a year to get their first hearing test? Would he not agree that the present position of deaf people waiting is very sad? Would he also not agree that services for deaf people have been very slow in coming forth and that they have been excluded from the 18-week waiting-time target for other people? Why should deaf people be discriminated against like this?

My Lords, as my noble friend knows, we have made a huge investment in these services and are, to some extent, the victims of our success. I acknowledge that there are long waits for audiology services and for assessment for hearing aid fittings. To tackle them, I am pleased to announce today that as part of the second phase of the procurement of diagnostics from the independent sector, I have decided that an additional 300,000 patient pathways will be procured. That will start to produce services from the early part of 2007 in the form of assessments, fitting and follow-up for people with hearing difficulties.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this issue is not about hearing aids in particular, but goes across the entire National Health Service? To my knowledge, large numbers of people in their 60s are being told that they cannot get a hip replacement because they are too young.

My Lords, this is a Question about audiology services. To the best of my knowledge no audiology services are doing hip replacements.

My Lords, my noble friend knows of my interest as the Minister who took and implemented the decision to phase out the old body-worn Medresco hearing aid while he also was at the former DHSS. Is he, however, aware how deeply anxious hearing-impaired people are to hear today the date of publication of the action plan, heralded as the answer to present discontents? Would it not be deeply unfortunate if Parliament went into Recess without knowing the publication date, or at least a date by which his department expects to be able to publish the plan?

My Lords, we will publish the national action plan very shortly. In answering the Question, I announced that an additional 300,000 patient pathways a year are being procured from the independent sector, with services starting to come on stream early in 2007. That will be part of the national action plan.

My Lords, will the Government give us an assurance that, contrary to some of the anecdotal evidence, there will be no shift away from funding audiology services to other parts of the NHS which are suffering from lack of funding?

My Lords, we have put a lot of additional money into these services and expect the strategic health authorities to continue to provide them at an acceptable level consistent with the national action plan, which we will publish.

My Lords, does the Minister believe that, because lack of hearing is not an apparent disability, it tends to be treated as a Cinderella service? I am pleased to hear him announce this extra money. Does that mean that there will be clinics as well as hospitals—the Question referred just to hospitals? If all the extra resources are to be made available, I presume they will be more widespread than that. Can he confirm that?

My Lords, we will ensure that, as part of the procurement of diagnostic services from the independent sector, 300,000 new service areas for assessment, fittings and follow-ups will be provided through the independent sector. It will be for discussion with the strategic health authorities and those independent sector providers precisely where and how those services are provided. That will be part of the procurement process.

My Lords, I was diagnosed by the Royal National Institute for the Deaf when I paid it a pastoral visit as Secretary of State for Health. I was told, “You really are very deaf”. I now depend entirely on the hearing aids with which I was able to supply myself—it was before the NHS did digital. I am really impressed by the case made by the Royal National Institute for the Deaf, and I hope that I can get an undertaking from the noble Lord that his department will now discuss fully with that admirable organisation how it intends to implement the announcement he has made today.

My Lords, we are always in close contact with the RNID, which is an important player in the national action plan. I am very pleased that the noble Lord has received such an excellent service. I am sure that he was always a listening Secretary of State for Health when he was in office.

My Lords, may I press the Minister on the date of publication of the action plan? Will it be within the next two months?

My Lords, I think that we could probably go on for quite a long time on this, but what I said, which I repeat, is that we will publish the action plan as quickly as possible. I cannot give the noble Baroness a precise date at this point.