Advocates say hearing impaired Kiwis languishing for years on cochlear implant waiting list

Laura James
Source: 1News

Advocates for hearing impaired New Zealanders say many are languishing for years on stand by for cochlear implants.

Only forty adults are funded for the life-changing technology a year, but there are 200 more on the waiting list.

But Dr Lewis Williams says this could be just the tip of the iceberg, “because the criteria within New Zealand is extremely strict”.

New research she’s released suggests the bar is too high, and funding for adults should be tripled.

Her paper, published in the New Zealand Medical Journal, looks at the lack of access to the implants and the impact it's having.

She’s found the average waiting time for a publicly funded implant is around two years, but it can be up to six years.

“It’s like actually trying to get through the eye of a needle,” Ms Williams said.

The summary of her study stated, “This life-changing technology is being under-utilised for New Zealand adults with often disastrous results.

“The social and economic benefits of providing a cochlear implant in a timely and effective manner clearly outweigh the societal costs in economic and social terms of withholding this treatment.”

Ms Williams recently received an implant herself, doing a self-case study as part of her paper.

She told 1 NEWS "my hearing loss set in when I was around 31, I'm now 58 and the last decade was terrible. absolutely terrible."

Auckland man Stephen Gee has been deaf since he was a toddler, but with some hearing in his left ear he wasn’t eligible for a publicly funded implant.

Getting one through the public system wasn’t an option either, with the cost in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Then, in June, he suddenly become completely deaf and has been waiting for an implant since.

“By the end of the first week I was ready to end my life, it was debilitating, it was depressing,” he told 1 NEWS.

He’s married with a young family and a business.

“Family life has completely changed. Katie, my wife, has had to take on a lot of my roles and responsibilities."

He’s been forced to rely on lip reading to communicate.

“It took till I was fully deaf to get the process underway, which I think is not right. We've got too many people out there in the same category," Mr Gee said.

This week he received his implant, with 1 NEWS invited to film the moment it was switched on.

Stephen Gee called his ability to hear again “magic”.

Auckland’s Hearing House , which is part of the New Zealand’s Northern Programme for cochlear implants, has information on its website about the criteria for adults to receive implants.

Its clinical director Holly Teagle said, “in other places in the world the criteria is a lot more liberal.

“When you think about pervasive hearing loss is and how impactful it is, we just hope to think there could be more funding for it as well.”

Ms Williams, after completing her study, believes the Government needs to immediately “raise the funding levels from 40 [adult] implants per year, to 120 per year”, and is petitioning for support.

“Longer term they need to look at various policy options,” she said.

Jenny Salesa, Associate Minister of Health, says she’s seen the life-changing difference cochlear implants can make.

She says the Ministry of Health currently invests $8.43 million per year in the cochlear implant programmes.

On top of the 40 adults that receive them funded per year, 16 infants and 30 children also receive them under the programmes.

In a statement Ms Salesa said, “The Government also reprioritised funding for an additional 24 adult cochlear implants in 2018/19.

“I acknowledge that demand for adult services continues to grow, and assure those affected that the Government continues to consider options for additional funding for cochlear implants alongside other health priorities."