People who visiting their GP for hearing problems have doubled over the last 10 years. The reason for this may be due to the fact that hearing loss has been spreading within the society. Hearing impairment is affecting one in six people in the UK. As the elderly population increases, people seem reluctant to address their problem, and recent research has indicated that only one in three people who can benefit from hearing aids have accessed them. While for some it takes months to seek medical help, others wait more than two years before visiting their GP.
GPs play a fundamental role in helping to diagnose people with hearing impairment and making sure that those who can benefit from audiology services are properly referred.
In the UK, approximately 14.5 million people have some level of hearing loss with ageing as the major cause. 55% of the people in their 60s are hearing impaired and 71% of those above 70. Age-related hearing loss usually begins at the age of around 50. However, people wait too long, on average until the age of 65, before they consult a GP for their problem. The level of disability varies greatly and some adjust well by using lip-reading or other strategies. As hearing continues to decrease over time, the ability to understand speech becomes severely affected.
Perhaps it is not surprising that people with hearing loss rarely consult their GP. The most common reason is because they underestimate the importance of their problem. However, the biggest issue for hearing-impaired people is effective communication. People are less likely to discuss the problem with their GP, although effective strategies for managing hearing loss are available. Besides the impact on communication, unmanaged hearing loss can lead to significant psychological problems including reduced quality of life, withdrawal from the society, isolation, lack of self-esteem and depression. Thereby, early diagnosing of hearing loss is important. The earlier the problem is addressed, the easier it is for the hearing impaired person to adjust to treatment.
People tend to visit their GP for unrelated conditions rather than specifically for their hearing problem. The GP is there to recognise hearing loss during the initial consultation since people often do not notice the problem. Health professionals are able to detect signs of hearing impairment. People with hearing difficulties are struggling to follow advice regarding their treatment or misunderstand instructions during the consultation. If hearing loss is suspected and there is no evidence to suggest a medical rather than natural cause, then an appropriate referral to a hearing aid audiologist can be made for a full hearing assessment.
The most commonly prescribed treatment for hearing loss is the use of hearing aids. Hard of hearing people can benefit from a range of services provided by the government. Patients can choose an audiology service and an aid that suits them. However, GPs have an important part to play in the process of identification and aftercare of hearing problems in their patients.