Health: Hearing Loss — Question
2:58 pm

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Baroness Wilkins (Labour)

To ask Her Majesty's Government what plans they have to introduce a screening programme for hearing loss for those over the age of 65.

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Earl Howe (Conservative)

My Lords, the United Kingdom National Screening Committee, UKNSC, advises Ministers and the National Health Service in all four United Kingdom countries about all aspects of screening policy. The UKNSC reviewed the evidence for screening for adult hearing loss in 2009 and recommended that there was currently insufficient evidence to warrant a screening programme. In line with its three-yearly review policy, the UKNSC is currently reviewing the evidence for screening for adult hearing loss.

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Baroness Wilkins (Labour)

I thank the Minister for that reply. He will be aware of the huge level of undiagnosed hearing loss in the UK and the impact this can have on other conditions. It is estimated that at least 4 million people who need a hearing aid do not have one. Not only does unaddressed hearing loss increase social isolation and depression, but there is increasing evidence that there is a link to dementia. People with mild hearing loss have nearly double the chance of developing dementia. Given that there is an average 10-year delay between someone identifying that they have a problem and seeking help, will the Government take early action to ensure that hearing loss is addressed early by introducing a screening programme?

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Earl Howe (Conservative)

My Lords, the noble Baroness's comments relating to the features that can often accompany hearing loss, such as depression and other forms of mental illness, are absolutely to the point and I recognise all that she said in that area. The national screening committee had a number of reasons for feeling that a universal screening programme would not be appropriate. First, it was not clear to it what the test should be. Secondly, it was unclear about what agreed time or schedule there should be for doing the testing. Thirdly, it felt that if there were a realistic proposal for screening, there should be randomised trials of screening beforehand. However, it is reviewing its decision of three years ago and we will have to await the results of that.

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Baroness Bakewell (Labour)

My Lords, the Minister referred to the screening authority, which recommends screening for many different ailments. Is he aware that screening notification, which goes out to all eligible citizens, stops at the age of 70 whereas it is necessary to be screened for many of these ailments after 70? Indeed, when you are over 70 you need reminding more often than when you are younger.

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Earl Howe (Conservative)

My Lords, that is why we are sure that it is for general practitioners to prompt their patients, when appropriate, on having an audiology assessment. The noble Baroness is right that people need prompting but there is more than one way of doing that.

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Baroness Howe of Idlicote (Crossbench)

My Lords, as someone who has had hearing problems since the birth of our children-a hearing loss which is now being considerably worsened by my own ageing process-I know how important it is to persevere with actually using hearing aids, once the right ones have been agreed with a specialist. I very much hope that the national screening committee will agree to my noble friend's suggestion that there should be a definite age, with a follow-up to the screening. What plans does it have to help those who have hearing aids assessed for them to persevere with the use of those aids, since that is absolutely vital to their well-being in the future?

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Earl Howe (Conservative)

The noble Baroness is quite right. Clinicians have found very often that patients who receive hearing aids decide, for one reason or another, not to use them. That is of course very serious; it is a waste of resources but, perhaps more importantly, it is potentially damaging to or indeed dangerous for the patient. Compliance is undoubtedly an issue. In the end, however, nobody can be forced to wear hearing aids but, once again, we believe that there is a role for audiology specialists and general practitioners in encouraging the proper use of hearing aids.

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Lord Trefgarne (Conservative)

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that of all the soldiers who went south to the Falkland Islands in 1982, approximately one-third came back with permanent hearing damage? Will he ensure that the arrangements he has described will fully take into account the needs of that group of people?

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Earl Howe (Conservative)

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for raising a very important issue about war veterans. My department is doing a lot of work in this area. I will write to him if I have anything more specific.

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Lord Collins of Highbury (Labour)

My Lords, I note what the Minister said in terms of the previous review but we now have an increase in retirement age and people are working longer. Hearing loss is not simply a personal health issue; it also becomes a bigger public health issue and a health and safety issue. Can the Minister therefore better understand the importance of national screening?

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Earl Howe (Conservative)

My Lords, the Government fully recognise that hearing loss is not just a health issue. For example, it can lead to isolation and loss of independence; it can impact on education and employment; and it can impact in the various ways mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, in her earlier question. We believe that health outcomes for people with hearing loss should be among the best in the world. To achieve that it is necessary to think and act differently. Therefore, we are developing a cross-government strategy to maximise the current effort to prevent hearing loss and to support those suffering from it. In particular, that will focus on identifying the potential better to join up services provided by the different agencies.

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Lord McColl of Dulwich (Conservative)

We have a generation of deaf people in this country produced by loud noise and music. What about preventing it in the first place?

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Baroness Tyler of Enfield (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, given the prevalence of hearing loss among our ageing population, will the Minister say what is being done to ensure that hearing loss is being effectively managed in residential care homes for the elderly? What steps are the Government taking to work with the regulator to ensure that providers are being held accountable for responding to the needs of people with hearing loss?

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Earl Howe (Conservative)

My noble friend raises a very important point about care homes. There have been considerable improvements in services for people with hearing loss over recent years. The waiting times for assessment and treatment for hearing problems in adults have been considerably reduced. The health and social care reforms provide opportunities to improve services further. For example, two-thirds of PCT clusters have chosen adult community hearing assessment services as a priority area in which to extend patient choice of provider. We expect that work to continue when CCGs take over.