CONCERNS have been raised about access to hearing services, with statistics showing the number of people on waiting lists for a hearing aid has ballooned by 150 per cent in three years.

Janet Finch-Saunders told the Senedd that 527,100 adults – 17 per cent of Wales’ population – have a degree of hearing loss that would benefit from treatment such as hearing aids.

She said that 4,000 people were waiting for a hearing aid appointment three years ago - but by September 2023 that number had reached nearly 10,000.

Highlighting that Wales has the highest proportion of over-65s of any UK nation, she told the chamber it is imperative to develop the best hearing services possible.

Calling for greater collaboration with independent providers such as Boots and Specsavers, she argued it would help health boards add capacity and improve access. She said the model, which is in use in England and Ireland, has provided services at a third of the per-patient cost compared to hospital services.

She warned: “Hearing loss cuts people off from each other. This can increase the risk of social isolation, cognitive decline and other mental issues.

“And I'm given to understand that it can actually bring on early dementia and Alzheimer's.

“Too often, deaf people who simply cannot hear quite often feel that they are referred to as 'daft' people – and that's the stigma that we've got to get rid of.”

Mark Isherwood, who lost his hearing as a younger person, urged ministers to recognise that demand for audiology services is only going to increase. He echoed calls for the NHS to work with community audiology service providers.

Joel James, who spoke about his own experiences of hearing loss at the event, said hearing impairment is linked to cognitive decline, but when aids are fitted, it ceases immediately.

He said: “If we look at child development, we know of social isolation, the impact in terms of speech and language, and then also the social skills that can be impaired.

“And then if we look at when we become adults, in terms of the working environment, there are 4.4 million in the entire UK that have hearing difficulties.

“Many of them feel that they're being discriminated against in the working environment.”

Responding to the short debate on February 7, Eluned Morgan recognised that hearing loss can be devastating at any age and can leave people feeling isolated.

The health minister said audiology services are delivered differently from the rest of the UK, arguing there is a stronger emphasis on primary and community care than elsewhere.

Baroness Morgan said she does not have any principled objection to exploring private sector options but the Welsh Government will prioritise public sector provision.

“If they can't do it, then, obviously, let's look at alternatives,” she told the chamber.

“But I would like to give this a fair wind, and I guess the health boards are on notice that they've got to deliver on what we're asking them to deliver.”