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Wednesday, 13 September 2017
Page: 10279

Mr ZIMMERMAN (North Sydney) (16:18): On behalf of the Standing Committee on Health, Aged Care and Sport, I present the committee's report entitled Still waiting to be heard: report on the Inquiry into the Hearing Health and Wellbeing of Australia, together with the minutes of proceedings.

Report made a parliamentary paper in accordance with standing order 39(e).

Mr ZIMMERMAN: by leave—For most Australians hearing and balance are such natural, intrinsic parts of life that it is not until they begin to be lost that we realise how much we have taken them for granted.

Yet for the more than 3.6 million Australians who experience hearing loss and balance disorders these conditions can have profound effects on their everyday lives and their relationships with their family, friends, and work colleagues.

Our committee received evidence time and again pointing to the challenges faced by the deaf community and those suffering hearing loss.

Young Sydney student Olivia Barnes powerfully told the committee of how hard it is to be at school and keep up with her peers and teachers. One submitter described, in their words, of 'often being treated as being daft, when I am just deaf'. It is support for these Australians that has been the driving force behind the work of our committee.

In so many ways, Australia is a world leader in supporting those with hearing loss.

The nation that invented the cochlear implant also has one of the best universal screening programs for newborns, a sophisticated support structure for those under 26 and a voucher scheme for hearing aids for pensioners.

Our early intervention services and the work of health professionals, researchers and educators are generally outstanding.

Yet there is much more we can do to support those with hearing loss.

In 2010, the Senate Community Affairs References Committee presented its report entitled: Hear us: Inquiry into hearing health in Australia.

Seven years on many of its recommendations have not been implemented, much to the frustration of hearing-impaired Australians, their families, the organisations that support them, and many in the medical community.

Hence, as the title of this report suggests, these Australians are still waiting to be heard.

The time has come for hearing health to be recognised as a national health priority.

During the inquiry, the committee was particularly disturbed by the evidence about hearing health issues in Indigenous communities.

It is a crisis that Indigenous Australians living in remote areas have the highest incidence of middle ear infections—or otitis media—anywhere in the world.

While most Australian children experience three months of their young lives with middle ear infections, the average for Indigenous Australians is closer to 2.5 years—often leading to permanent hearing damage and all that follows—including reduced educational and employment opportunities.

In remote communities as many as 90 per cent of children will be experiencing otitis media at any time.

This cannot be tolerated and the committee has recommended concerted federal and state action.

We need a national strategy. We need to expand programs like Queensland's impressive Deadly Ears scheme. And we need to finally implement simple solutions like introducing sound amplification in classrooms which still eludes educational authorities despite being recommended seven years ago by the Senate committee.

Australia has a world-class system of paediatric hearing care that includes universal newborn hearing screening, free audiology services provided by Australian Hearing, and a network of early intervention services providing treatment and therapy.

But it can be improved.

The committee has recommended universal screening as children enter the school system to capture those who have developed hearing difficulties since birth.

Delayed diagnosis means delayed learning and potentially years of catching up.

Many inquiry participants were concerned that the implementation of the National Disability Insurance Scheme could disrupt what is an excellent system, potentially having a detrimental impact on hearing-impaired children's development of language and communication skills.

The committee has therefore recommended that, following the implementation of the NDIS, Australian Hearing retain its role as the sole provider of audiological services to young children.

In addition, the committee recommended the development of a 'guided pathway' to assist parents access early intervention providers.

We should not risk adversely changing a system which is already performing well.

Hearing loss is particularly prevalent among older people, affecting three out of every four Australians over 70 years of age.

A troubling issue that emerged during the inquiry was the potential for the financial exploitation of vulnerable older Australians through the use of sales commissions in the hearing aid clinic industry.

The use of commissions creates an incentive for clinicians to provide advice based on the potential for financial gain, which is clearly unacceptable.

The committee has recommended that Australian Hearing cease the use of commissions and that the Department of Health takes steps to phase out their use by private providers.

While associated with hearing health, balance disorders do not receive a lot of attention but their effects, which may include acute attacks of dizziness and nausea, can be severely debilitating.

The causes of balance disorders are not well understood and there is a need for more research in this area, which may result in the development of new treatment options.

The committee has also recognised the role of education.

We need a national campaign to ensure Australians understand how vulnerable their hearing can be to noise damage—be it in the workplace or a nightclub.

And for many sectors, like our farmers, better understanding can prevent significant hearing loss in later life.

I would like to thank the organisations, agencies, and individuals who participated in this inquiry, especially those hearing-impaired and deaf Australians who provided the committee with accounts of their personal experiences.

I would like to thank my fellow committee members for their commitment and constructive contributions during this inquiry. Inquiries such as this show parliament working at its best.

During the inquiry we were exceptionally well supported by the staff of the committee secretariat and I thank them for their professionalism.

I commend the report to the House with the plea to governments—state and federal—that the needs of Australians with hearing loss are finally heard.

I move:

That the House take note of the report.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Coulton ): The debate is adjourned, and the resumption of the debate will be made an order for the next day of sitting.