The future of hearing aids has arrived, and it’s digital. Good news for everyone? Rew Oates, front-man of Kent-based band Wheels and social worker by day, claims it is not. He says, ‘Digital aids aren’t suitable for all types of hearing loss. When I use my new digital aid, I can’t bear the sound of my own voice. The voices of others sound distorted and unclear. Ambient noise is suppressed, everything else sounds false, like I’m listening through headphones. Other random sounds are highly amplified for no apparent reason.’
Rew has ‘sloping hearing loss’, which is severe to profound in the higher frequencies. He was first fitted with an analogue hearing aid 23 years ago at the age of six. Audiologists at NHS Medway admit that the digital models currently available are not suitable for his particular hearing needs. However, Rew has been told that once his old hearing aid wears out, there will be no analogue replacement; a predicament arising from an initiative launched by the Department of Health in 2000, in response to public demand for digital aids. The implementation and delivery of the Modernising Hearing Aid Services programme was led by the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID).
Department of Health
The Department of Health maintains that no decision was made to phase out analogue hearing aids. A spokesperson says, ‘The provision of digital aids is not compulsory and people can request to continue to use an analogue aid if they find they would prefer to. The purpose of the Modernising Hearing Aid Services programme was to increase the availability of digital aids, not to replace analogue aids. Digital hearing aids are not used exclusively by the NHS and they are not suitable for all patients. As with any other treatment provided, hearing aids should be appropriate to a patient’s clinical requirements.’ Why, then, are patients experiencing difficulties obtaining analogue devices at local audiology centres?
A spokesperson for NHS Medway says, ‘The decision to phase out analogues was not made by us, rather the hearing aid manufacturers in response to lack of demand.’ Since demand is driven by the NHS itself, it seems a perverse move to blame manufacturers for lack of availability. This irony was not missed by Rew who points out that, from his own conversations with hearing aid manufacturers, ‘the reason they no longer focus on analogue aids is because the NHS, the biggest purchaser of hearing aids in the world, doesn’t want them.’
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Failing to consult
The NHS’s core principles state that ‘services must reflect the needs and preferences of patients’, who should ‘be involved in and consulted on all decisions about their care and treatment.’ By denying his clinical requirement, ignoring his preference for an analogue aid, and failing to consult him about the withdrawal of analogue aids, the NHS is failing to live up to its own core principles. Rew claims the decision made on his behalf by the NHS is making him more disabled than he has ever felt.
Dismayed by NHS Medway’s inability to meet his needs, Rew and his wife, Anna, set up a Facebook campaign group to drum up awareness and support. Anna says, ‘I think this issue has been swept under the carpet and individuals have thought they were alone with this problem. We want to draw attention and make the NHS aware just how widespread this is.’
As a result of his campaigning efforts, Rew has been promised a new analogue aid by NHS Medway, however many patients remain unaware of their options and some may not have the confidence to fight to have their needs properly addressed. Anna says, ‘If patients aren’t informed by their audiology departments that analogue devices can still be purchased by the NHS, and are told that digital is the only option, they are, in effect, being forced to switch.’
At the heart of this issue, there is a society-wide uncertainty: Can we be sure this issue is experienced exclusively by hearing aid users? Are other patients being coerced into accepting unsuitable treatments? Are other condition-specific departments undergoing modernising programmes which invalidate patient choice and disable the people they were set up to help? How many people are suffering in silence, unaware that they still have a choice?
The Keep Analogue Hearing Aids Available on the NHS group can be found on Facebook.
Photograph (c) Alan Bourne