Research shows that 65% of new hearing aid users experience difficulties in using their aid. Volunteers at Hear to Help clinics can undertake minor repairs, in the local community, thereby saving people hours of travel time to visit their NHS audiology department and minimising the need for hospital outpatient appointments.
Action on Hearing Loss works in partnership with NHS audiologists and with volunteers, many of whom have a hearing loss themselves.
What do volunteers do?
Volunteers set up and run Hear to Help clinics in local libraries, community centres and other local venues, according to a publicised schedule. Volunteers are trained by NHS Audiologists to resolve some of the common problems people encounter with their hearing aids. These include battery and tubing replacement, basic hearing aid maintenances well as providing advice on how to get the most out of the hearing aids. They are also promoting the benefits of self-maintenance by teaching hearing aid users, family members and carers how to perform basic maintenance. This potentially means people will be able to maintain their own hearing aids while at home.
Volunteers are equipped with a kit of tools and spare parts. They attend annual refresher training, delivered by audiologists, in order to keep up to date with the ever advancing technology and new models of hearing aid. They can also refer clients on to their GP, social services sensory team or to Community Connectors, as appropriate.
Making a difference
The service provides NHS hearing aid users with basic hearing aid maintenance much closer to home. Hospital clinics are often very busy and these drop in sessions help reduce the demand at hospitals whilst making access easier and more convenient for patients.
The impact on clients is obvious. ‘When someone comes into the clinic who hasn’t been for some months and a volunteer sorts out their hearing aid, there is a grin from ear to ear’ said Rachael Beech, Hear to Help Manager with Action on Hearing Loss, which operates predominately in Powys. ‘Volunteers can see immediately the impact they have had on someone’s quality of life and this is so gratifying. Many volunteers experience hearing loss themselves and can empathise with their clients. They know the effect that hearing loss can have on one’s self confidence, as well as one’s ability to participate in social activities’
The Powys Hear to help service runs clinics in 15 locations on a monthly basis. The skilful band of volunteers also carries out between 10 and 20 home visits a month, visits 18 or 19 care homes a year and attend 3 ‘leg clubs’ regularly (where dressings are renewed by district nurses at community venues).
For some clients, coming along to the Hear to Help clinic has become part of their routine, where they can find a cup of tea or coffee and a friendly chat as well as having their hearing aid attended to.
Challenges and lessons learned
The volunteers’ role can be challenging. Rachael said ‘Volunteers need to work close up in someone’s personal space. But whoever it is, and whatever their situation, volunteers maintain an equitable and consistent standard of service. Sometimes volunteers are unable to solve a client’s problem and there is no option but to refer for an audiology appointment. This doesn’t always go down well and volunteers have to manage a client’s disappointment’.
Maintaining a consistent service over such a large and varied geographical area is a further challenge. ‘We have 39 volunteers at the moment but there are often problems regarding cover due to illness or volunteers moving away or retiring and recruiting in such a rural area such as Powys has many challenges.’ said Rachael. ‘A clinic cannot run without at least two volunteers. If necessary, I step in and cover where there are volunteer vacancies. We avoid cancelling clinics as far as possible.’
The Hear to Help programme is an exemplary partnership between audiologists who have the professional expertise and Action for Hearing Loss which has expertise in involving volunteers and the flexibility to set up and develop new systems that work for local people in their communities.
‘Working with NHS professionals, we have to operate a highly professional service ourselves’ said Rachael ‘We have to ensure that health care and audiology standards are being met and to demonstrate that the service that is being delivered is second to none. I submit a detailed and specific report for the commissioners within Powys although the service cover 4 separate Health Boards.
‘We have a tremendous working relationship with audiology departments; they recognise the difference that we can make and enable us to run a valuable community based service’.
Developing and sustaining the service
The first Wales Hear to Help programme began in Radnorshire almost ten years ago, when volunteers were recruited and trained, referrals received from audiologists and home visits arranged. Then the service expanded to cover much of Wales, with clinics being held in community venues and having more centralised co-ordination.
When grant funding ceased in 2016, it was hoped that the seven Health Boards in Wales would continue to invest in the service, so as not to lose the excellent service that had been developed. Since then, Powys Teaching Health Board now commissions Action one Hearing Loss to deliver the service on a rolling basis and Swansea Bay University Health Board has taken the service ‘in house’, where it continues to be run by volunteers but under the auspices of the Health Board.
What’s happening at Swansea Bay University Health Board
Action on Hearing Loss worked with the Health Board to set up a volunteer based Hearing Aid repair and advice service and in April 2019 the Health Board recruited the Action on Hearing Loss volunteers and continued with the community walk-in clinics across Swansea and Neath Port Talbot with the hope of developing the service further.
There are now over 10 Health Board volunteers supporting monthly drop in sessions at care homes, libraries and churches in 13 locations across Swansea and Neath Port Talbot.
Rhys Meredith, Head of Audiology, at Swansea Bay University Health Board said; ‘The service is excellent. Our patients can visit the volunteers at local drop in centres which saves them making trips to the hospital’.
Julia Griffiths, Volunteer Coordinator said ‘Our volunteers are making a huge difference to the lives of patients with hearing aids by providing a friendly, accessible local service. Patients don’t have the inconvenience of travelling to a hospital site. Sometimes a small adjustment can mean such a lot’.
Steven Pascoe, Clinical Lead for Adult Audiology Swansea said ‘We are very pleased with the continued growth of the volunteer service. Our team of volunteers are passionate about helping others and find the role very rewarding. Moving forward we plan to continue to recruit more volunteers. This will hopefully lead to additional clinics in more locations across the Swansea and Neath Port Talbot areas.’
‘We would like to extend the reach into different communities across Wales’ said Rachael Beech, ‘and more could be done to raise general awareness about hearing loss, including the known links with dementia’.
Meanwhile volunteers will continue to provide life-changing support for NHS hearing aid users of all ages, including in some of the most rural parts of Wales.
Case study by Helpforce Cymru. Helpforce is working with Third Sector Support Wales (WCVA and 19 CVCs), Welsh Government and other partners to develop the potential of volunteering to support health and social care services in Wales,
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