Hundreds of people have had their say on a review of free NHS hearing aids and other health services.
Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire’s six clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) are looking at five services, with the aim of saving money and ending the current ‘postcode lottery. It forms part of the Difficult Decisions programme.
They have now published the results of an engagement exercise, which was carried out just before the pandemic resulted in the programme being suspended.
A total of 569 people responded to the survey, with 338 of these giving their views on hearing aids – more than for any other service.
At the moment, five of the six CCGs, including Stoke-on-Trent, provide free hearing aids to all adults with hearing loss.
But in 2015, North Staffordshire CCG – which covers Newcastle and the Moorlands – controversially became the first in the country to end the provision for most people with ‘mild’ hearing loss, in order to save money.
The review could result in this policy being rolled out across the county, although the CCGs insist there is currently no proposal to do this.
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The people who responded to the survey on hearing aids included service users, healthcare professionals and other interested parties.
Of the service users who responded, 58 per cent said getting a hearing aid had had a positive impact on their ‘social life, relationships and communication’, while 15 per cent said it had allowed them to continue education or employment. Just a handful of respondents reported a neutral or negative impact.
There was general support for the service to be funded for all patients. Action on Hearing Loss, British Society of Audiology and the British Academy of Audiology highlighted the impact of hearing loss on quality of life and the potential of untreated hearing loss resulting in adverse patient outcomes.
The Royal British Legion, meanwhile, argued that veterans with any level of hearing loss should be able to access hearing aids.
A North Staffordshire resident with hearing loss shared their experience of missing out on a free hearing aid, with their response included in the report on the engagement exercise.
The report states: “The member of the public also expressed concern over North Staffordshire CCG not adhering to NICE guidance on fitting hearing aids, commenting that this disadvantages the elderly. They commented that hearing aids should be provided in line with NICE guidelines, which consider the impact of hearing loss on day-to day life.
“They highlighted that individual circumstances and the impact of hearing loss on quality of life should be considered when making decisions about eligibility to hearing aids.”
Male and female sterilisation was the service which had the second biggest response in the engagement, with 203 people providing views.
Of the people who had used the service, 16 per cent said it had reduced the worry of unplanned pregnancies, while 54 per cent reported ‘no negative impact/no change’.
Another issue raised by respondents was the cost of pregnancies to the NHS, in terms of maternity care or abortions.
Sixty-four people gave feedback on breast augmentation and reconstruction, another service being reviewed. Seventy-one per cent of respondents said reconstructive surgery should be available for breast cancer or breast surgery patients.
The CCGs are also reviewing the provision of assisted conception and the removal of excess skin following significant weight loss.
Along with the surveys, the engagement exercise also included seven ‘deliberative’ events, which were attended by 56 people in total.
The CCGs plan to use the feedback to help decide which options to bring forward for each of the affected services, although this process is still on hold due to the impact of the pandemic.
Dr Lorna Clarson, a GP in Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent and clinical lead for this work, said: “This was a comprehensive engagement that was completed just before the coronavirus pandemic hit us.
“We announced in April that work would be suspended as we needed to put all our efforts into fighting the pandemic.
“While that remains the case, we acknowledge there has been frustration caused by people not being able to see the results of the engagement. That is why we are now pleased to publish the independent engagement report, which highlights all the feedback and the comments that were collated during the engagement work.
“We’ve also developed a summary version demonstrating the key themes from each of the five service areas.
“The next stage of the engagement process is deciding on the options to take forward for each service based on this feedback. However, this requires direct input from clinicians and, at the moment, they really all need to be concentrating on continuing the fight against the coronavirus pandemic and preparing for winter.
“It’s a case of prioritising our clinical resources and we’re not able to commit to a timescale for when this work will continue.
“I would though like to reiterate my thanks for people getting involved and sharing their experiences as this will be used to shape the future services when we have defeated the virus and moved past winter.”