Recently I filled in an online form asking to be referred for a hearing test and I was very quickly sent an appointment text for a surgery at The Friarage Hospital in Northallerton. This meant me travelling quite a distance from Thirsk, but the appointment was ‘faster access’. The GP was bang on time and looked in my ears before telling me that if I’m suffering, over 60 and have hearing loss, I can have a hearing aid. He then advised me to go to Boots or Specsavers and pay for a test. That was it.
In summary, I had to travel to the hospital, to be told that what the ‘faster access’ doctor advises is to pay for a test, as there is a long waiting list.
When I had problems with my ears earlier in life I was referred to an audiologist and the ENT department. “Your hearing is below par for a 50-year-old”, I was told by the audiologist. But there was no apparent reason, so I was given saline drops to try. I also had tinnitus.
As a music teacher it’s probably an occupational hazard, I thought. I put the phone to my ‘good’ ear, turn my head and watch people speaking, put on the subtitles, concentrate hard at the cinema and ask people to repeat themselves.
I wasn’t afraid of any stigma but life was happening, then Covid, a house move and an arm operation that all precluded me from following it up.
In essence, there have been almost 20 years of angst building up to this appointment. Hopefully, I would finally find out what was going on with my hearing and get help. I was quite emotional. As a musician it is important to me; especially as my family has a history of hearing loss, and dementia, to which hearing has been found to be a contributory factor.
Pay or wait?
So back to my appointment at The Friarage, with the doctor who had advised me to pay for a private test. I asked him how long an NHS referral would take (not wanting to admit that I couldn’t pay). “Ages”, he replied, “But I can look up for you how much it will cost if that helps”.
I vaguely remembered my opticians having a poster up offering free hearing tests, so my mind is racing with the possibilities of being able to get one and then come back to get a free hearing aid; but I am upset and then I am cross. I ask the doctor to please refer me and if I get my own test in the meantime I will let them know. “It’s the principle of it.” I tell him. He doesn’t look convinced and I wonder if he’s heard of Bevan.
“No society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.”
I explain about the earlier test but he can’t see it on the system. The appointment is a complete waste of time and everyone’s money. The NHS paid to have that office and that locum there to tell me that I have to pay for a test; his wages for that time would probably have paid for it!
Perhaps if they employed more audiologists at a proper rate of pay, everyone could have a free hearing test and prevent future problems but here they aren’t even putting a sticking plaster on the problem, they’re telling me to go buy my own sticking plasters from Boots!
Statistics, not services
My experience of being in Friarage Hospital for surgery in the past has been very good but this was a GP appointment and not a hospital appointment. I have nothing but praise for the hospital and the staff (and I wholeheartedly support their strikes) but I have issues with two things.
First, I wasn’t comfortable with them telling patients to go and buy treatment.
Secondly, by using the online form, I seem to have been cast into some in-between area of the NHS, which is neither my GP nor the hospital. I have not had a problem at all with the doctor’s practice, or with the hospital but it is the ‘extra’ services seemingly generated by going online that do not function to help the patient but to prop up the statistics. The ‘faster access’ appointment that cost us more time and money nevertheless shows that I was seen and dealt with very quickly. The patient’s satisfaction, however, is lost.
I feel very lucky to have had some very good treatment by the NHS but we should not feel lucky; we should feel cared for.
I have fought to hang on to my rare NHS dental appointment by the skin of my teeth (pun intended) but if I have to have a filling I consider what else I am not buying that month. Being told to go buy my hearing test made me feel sick, and then very angry.
I insisted I be referred for a free test because I wanted to both prove a point and be a statistic showing the failure of the system. I wanted to stick up for those who will not say that they cannot afford a test or a fancy hearing aids, that they are then persuaded to buy on a credit card because they do not feel they can go back and ask for more.
Fast forward a week and I’ve had a letter from the NHS telling me I need to book an appointment, on a website with a code. It’s for Audio but I am offered a non-person appointment fairly soon – at 2am. I am perplexed and feel as if I’ve slipped through some sort of gap in reality but I am determined, so book an appointment – even though I won’t be there and it will happen when I am sleeping.
Meanwhile, I have a test booked at my opticians and find that Boots has appointments straight away if I can travel once again, to Northallerton. I suddenly have three possible tests but go for my Boots appointment first.
“Yes”, the audiologist says, “You have the hearing of a steel shipyard worker of 40 years!” I am vindicated! Not only that, but I am told that it is not age related (as the locum GP assumed because I have reached the magical age of 60) but is probably genetic and I definitely need hearing aids to help the nerve damage and stop my hearing deteriorating further. The audiologist at Boots was the kindest and most helpful, straightforward person I could have hoped to get and I am very grateful for his attention.
I explain to him that I cannot afford the starting price of £600 for the hearing aids they can supply and he prints off my report, putting me under no pressure to buy.
I go straight to my GP practice and ask for help. I explain everything to the receptionist and just like that, it is like being enveloped in care. She takes my letter of diagnosis to the GP straight away for approval then photocopies it and starts to process my referral for hearing aids.
Fight for our NHS
“The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with faith to fight for it.”Aneurin Bevan
If only I hadn’t had to go through all the online palaver, I think, and because it has been quite an overwhelming process I cry right there in the reception. There are so many pressures on people today, and I always go online to try to alleviate the pressure on the services, but in this instance, it just didn’t work.
I leave feeling cared for once again and relieved that the trip down the rabbit hole has brought me back home to where I should be. I wonder about my 2 am non-person appointment but decide that I can cancel that now; what was made in the ether can stay in the ether. I jest, but actually this whole process has been far more complicated than it should have been and for anyone not confident enough to demand their right, that experience could have meant they did not get the treatment they needed.
I initially asked for the NHS referral because I want to fight for our community and society to continue to be civilised. I know that more and more people are being encouraged to pay for their treatment and it isn’t right.
The Boots appointment and result was free and transferable (although another private hearing centre I enquired with said that theirs wasn’t).
My GP surgery, when I finally went in person, was brilliant and I cannot fault their service: but I can say that the various online ways of trying to get appointments don’t always work and end up costing more money. There seems to be a grey area between our free NHS and a commercially run one into which the vulnerable could easily fall; as if we’re moving to full privatisation by stealth.