Inquiry into the Hearing Health and Wellbeing of Australia
Translated into plain language
A national inquiry has been underway in 2017 into the hearing health and wellbeing of Australia.
The parliamentary committee that conducted the inquiry – the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Health, Aged Care and Sport – wrote a report that was published this month. The report is called Still waiting to be heard.
The leader of the committee was Mr Trent Zimmerman MP. This is what he said in his introduction to the report.
Hearing is very important to the lives of most Australians. 3.6 million people are affected by some form of hearing impairment. In 40 years there might be as many as 7.8 million affected.
In 2010, another parliamentary inquiry – called the Hear Us: Inquiry into Hearing Health in Australia – made many recommendations to improve the hearing health and wellbeing of Australians. Many of the people and organisations that shared their opinions in this new inquiry said they were frustrated that most of the recommendations made in 2010 had been ignored by governments.
The government must make Hearing Health and Wellbeing a national health priority.
Hearing problems hurt more than just individuals, their families and friends. There is a big effect on the Australian economy. Research shows that hearing loss costs the nation $33.3 billion every year. That’s $15 billion in real money and $17 billion in lost wellbeing for individuals. (Ed. The government could build a new international airport each year for this amount). The cost to the economy of balance disorders is less certain, but just the cost of visits to hospital emergency departments could be as much as $148 million each year.
Two important issues about hearing services for children were often spoken about during the inquiry. The first was how children with hearing problems would be treated by the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). The second issue was the high rate of ear infections among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
For a young child even a small delay in treating their hearing impairment can result in a life-long reduction in their language and communication skills.
The committee was told that parents who had no experience of hearing impairment found it difficult to find trustworthy information in a short time to make good decisions about the future healthcare needs of their child.
The situation of ear infections among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children is at crisis point. At any time 90 per cent of children in remote communities will have an ear infection. While the problem is most severe in remote communities, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in cities and regional areas also experience ear infections at much higher rates than most children. Repeated infections in childhood can result in permanent hearing damage and have been found to limit the life opportunities in adulthood. For a child with an ear infection, the constant struggle to hear at school can make them lose interest in learning.
Preventing hearing damage and providing support for hearing impaired Australians of working age was also raised during the inquiry. Many people rely on a hearing device to keep their jobs. But because of the high cost of hearing devices, they may not be able to afford to replace a broken or old hearing device.
The incidence of hearing loss is high among older people. Three out of every four Australians over 70 years of age are affected.
The committee found that an issue of particular concern is the potential for financial exploitation of vulnerable older Australians due to the use of commissions in the hearing aid clinic industry. Older Australians entering a hearing aid clinic should be able to trust that the advice they receive will be based solely on their healthcare needs. The inquiry report has recommended that Australian Hearing stop giving sales incentives to its audiologists.
While associated with hearing health, balance disorders do not receive a lot of attention but their effects on sufferers can be debilitating. Balance disorder sufferers can experience unexpected attacks of dizziness that are accompanied by intense nausea and a loss of balance so acute that those affected are unable to stand. Acute attacks, and the anxiety of not knowing when they will occur, can make everyday activities, such as working or driving a car, difficult or impossible. The causes of balance disorders are not well understood and there is a need for more research, which may result in the development of new treatments.
The evidence is clear. No matter a person’s age or background, hearing impairment and balance disorders have huge social and financial impacts.
There is a growing understanding that hearing impairment, a condition affecting 3.6 million Australians, should be a government priority.
The Committee strongly believes that hearing health requires greater recognition. Taking action on the recommendations in this new report will improve the hearing health and wellbeing of Australia. Hearing Health and Wellbeing should become a National Health Priority.
You can read and download the original report from www.deafnessforum.org.au
Next, we summarise the report’s recommendations:
The Department of Health should create a national plan to improve hearing health in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. It should work with Australian Hearing, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, states and territories, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health organisations, and local communities.
The Department of Health and Australian Hearing should put much more resources into providing hearing health services in regional and remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. This program should reduce the waiting lists for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who need hearing health treatment.
The Department of Health and the Department of Education and Training should create a hearing health fund for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander school students. This fund should pay for hearing assistance systems in the classrooms of all regional, rural, and remote schools. It should fund deaf Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to learn sign language and access interpreters.
The Department of Social Services should change its rules to allow people who have appointments with their audiologists to be able to access the free interpreting service, delivered by the Translation and Interpreting Service.
The Office of Hearing Services should take a fresh look at the government hearing services for people in aged care facilities. Such things as assistive listening devices (hearing loops, phones) for aged care residents; the needs of deafblind people; and educating staff and helpers in aged care facilities.
The Department of Health should consult with other stakeholders in designing and delivering an education and awareness raising campaign on hearing health. The campaign should promote safe noise exposure practices in the workplace. It should promote safe listening practices in the music industry and among young people. It should encourage people with hearing loss to get professional advice. It should encourage doctors to ask their patients about their hearing, particularly those aged 50 years and over. The campaign should take the stigma out of hearing loss and educate the public on the challenges faced by deaf and hearing impaired Australians.
The Department of Health should develop a national hearing loss prevention and treatment program for people who live in farming communities. The program should explain the risks to hearing from noisy farm machinery and how to reduce these risks. It should have programs that screen people’s hearing so they can get professional help if it is needed.
The Australian Government Hearing Services Program and the National Acoustic Laboratories should make a priority of doing research on balance disorders, genetic and stem-cell treatments for hearing impairment, and long term research on the experiences of adults having treatment for hearing impairment.
The government should add hearing health services that are delivered via the internet to the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS). These services should include audiology; ear, nose, and throat appointments; early intervention listening and spoken language therapy; and speech pathology. Under the MBS, people can claim 100 per cent of the fee as a rebate for general practice services and 85 per cent of non-GP services from Medicare when the services are provided out of hospital.
The government should review Australian Hearing’s services in the Hearing Services Program Voucher Scheme to make sure it does not have a commercial advantage over private audiologists.
The Community Service Obligations (CSO) program should be opened up to provide hearing services to hearing impaired people aged 26 to 65 years who are on low incomes or are unemployed. The CSO client groups are vulnerable people in the community and include Deaf and hearing impaired children, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples aged over 50 years and under 65 years.
The government Hearing Services Program should not allow audiologists and audiometrists to get commissions and other incentives for selling hearing devices. This will make sure that the advice they offer people is independent and based on what is best for the individual. Australian Hearing should stop giving sales incentives to its audiologists.
The government should make it mandatory that audiologists and audiometrists are registered to practice. They should be registered in the same way as doctors, dentists and optometrists under the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency framework.
The government should make sure that audiological services for children under the age of five remain within the Department of Health’s Community Service Obligations program. Australian Hearing should keep its role as the only provider of these services.
The Office of Hearing Services should help parents to choose expert early intervention services for their children. It can do this by creating a national ‘guided pathway’ system, based in Australian Hearing.
Governments should introduce a free national hearing screening program for children in their first year of school, with the aim of having all children tested within the first 60 days of the school year.
When a child is found to have a hearing impairment by a school screening program, the child should be quickly referred to a paediatric audiologist. The appointment should be able to be bulk billed.
All governments should report against the ‘National Performance Indicators to Support Neonatal Hearing Screening in Australia’.
The National Disability Insurance Agency should find out about the likely demand for Auslan interpretation services for people who will be eligible for the Scheme. It should also find out if there are enough interpreters available to meet this demand.
All governments should work together to make sure that Auslan interpretation services are available for people when they have medical, law and other essential appointments.
It was a good decision not to sell the government-owned Australian Hearing and it should not be sold at any time in the future.
Hearing health should be made a National Health Priority.