It is estimated that approximately nine million people in the UK suffer from some degree of hearing loss.
A recent survey carried out by the British Society of Hearing Aid Audiologists revealed that, on average, patients wait up to 30 weeks for a first appointment with an audiology department.
I have been a GP at Twyford Surgery in the Thames Valley since 1990.
Over the past few years, and particularly in the wake of the Modernising Hearing Aid Services Programme, demand for digital hearing aids has grown and so have waiting lists. We therefore offer a free on-site hearing test service.
We decided to pilot this service in February 2003. The aim was to provide patients with faster access to a hearing assessment and to ensure that only appropriate referrals to the local audiology department would be made. It was also intended that patients who would benefit from a hearing aid should be fully informed of the choices available to them, including provision in the private sector.
Our first step was to identify a suitable registered hearing aid dispenser (RHAD) who would be well placed to visit the surgery on a regular basis.
A RHAD is qualified to carry out hearing tests and fit hearing aids. We found a RHAD in February 2003 and agreed that he would visit our surgery once a month to provide a free audiology testing service.
Now when a patient presents with a hearing problem we book them in with the RHAD for a hearing test, which will take place within a month. The RHAD then provides us with a fully completed audiogram, and also alerts us to any symptoms that might require the patient to be referred to ENT.
Following their test, we discuss the results and the most appropriate next steps for treating any hearing problems identified. We can deal with some problems, such as wax removal, but in other cases a hearing aid might be required. In these cases most patients are placed on the waiting list for an appointment at the local audiology department.
To date, we have referred over 120 patients to the visiting RHAD service.
Of these, 25 per cent did not have sufficient hearing loss to benefit from a hearing aid. Approximately 60 per cent were referred on to the local audiology department, while the remaining 15 per cent decided to purchase a hearing aid outside the NHS.
Patients who decide on the latter course can choose to purchase an aid privately as part of the on-site hearing test service. They have the support and advice of their GP and are provided with an ongoing professional aftercare service at the surgery.
The hearing test service has proved popular with both the GPs and our patients. From the patient's perspective, they receive a professional initial assessment of their hearing loss within a specified number of days and in a convenient and familiar environment. This helps to reduce anxiety.
From our point of view, the prompt testing service has allayed our concerns over long waiting times for initial hearing assessments and has freed time previously taken up with repeat visits by patients on waiting lists.
The scheme has also enabled the surgery to increase its provision of community-based services. In addition, the service has no cost implications for the NHS and, most significantly, it has resulted in a 40 per cent reduction in the number of patients we refer.
We intend to continue with our on-site hearing test clinic. Not only does the service ensure that more people are provided with digital hearing aids faster but it also helps me and my colleagues to manage our workload.
We are also delighted that the service has resulted in a significant reduction in referrals to the local audiology department, thereby reducing strain on the NHS and saving valuable time and money.
- Dr Davies is a GP in Reading, Berkshire
For more information about how this scheme could help patients in your area, call Steve Edmunds, at Hidden Hearing Ltd, on (01622) 690132.