Streamlined hearing care: from GP referral to community pharmacy treatment

Basit Abdul, a Healthcare Scientist from the Pharmacy Integration Fund at NHS England, explains how a pilot programme in London is a shining example of how new technologies can be used to improve hearing care in the community.

Hearing health is essential to our wellbeing, connecting us with the world and enriching our social interactions. NHS South West London Integrated Care Board has recognised that there is a lack of accessible and free NHS hearing health services in the area. This can lead to health inequalities, patients facing long waiting times, and increased secondary care backlogs. It can also mean that senior ear, nose and throat clinicians’ time and skills are not being used as efficiently as possible.

To address this need, NHS South West London Integrated Care Board executed a pilot pathway involving GP surgeries and community pharmacies. In the 12 months the pilot pathway has run, it has successfully demonstrated the effective use of new technologies in enhancing healthcare delivery. By extending the scope of service provision to include non-medical staff in community settings such as pharmacies, this initiative has showcased the potential for a more diverse workforce model to meet the evolving needs of patient care.

During the pilot, an innovative digital otoscopic device was introduced across 20 pharmacies, empowering pharmacy staff to offer comprehensive ear care including ear examination, earwax removal and hearing checks. The uptake was impressive, with over 7,600 patients referred to the service, and a remarkable 70% completing their treatment within the community setting.

The feedback from this initiative has been very positive, with 95% of staff reporting a positive experience. This is more than a statistic; it’s a testament to the service’s integration into the community pharmacy and the genuine impact on patients’ lives.

Training for staff was met with great success, reflected in the smooth adoption of the new technology. The emphasis on usability and safety was clear, with no patient harm reported.

A community pharmacy staff interviewee said: “we’re making a difference here […] we’re working hand in hand with the GP surgeries, they’re really, really happy. I’m sure it’s reducing workloads everywhere. And we’re quite happy to do it. And yes, I would like to carry on”.

The pilot has also highlighted the potential for such models to be both feasible and sustainable. With 36% of patients seen within a week and 87% in under 4 weeks, the reduction in waiting times has not only boosted patient satisfaction but also demonstrated cost-effectiveness, with potential long-term benefits for the NHS.

NHS England commissioned an independent evaluation through the Pharmacy Integration Fund to explore the potential for other integrated care boards to look at this type of service for their population. The findings have highlighted that the pilot serves as a blueprint for expanding these services, with an eye on continuous improvement and adaptability. It’s a promising step forward, showcasing how innovation can enhance service delivery within the NHS.

For a deep dive into the methodology, results, and the pilot’s strategic recommendations, read the full report. 

A patient survey respondent said: “Very efficient and explained the process fully. It was also more local and much quicker than going to hospital, so very convenient. The staff were fantastic. The equipment and facilities were great. Would highly recommend to everyone”.

Photograph of Basit Abdul, Healthcare Scientist specialised in clinical engineering

Basit, a Healthcare Scientist specialised in clinical engineering, holds two part-time roles within NHS England. He is a Clinical Programme Lead in the Pharmacy Integration Fund team, leading the evaluation of the Hearing Health pathway pilot in South West London Integrated Care Board. Additionally, he acts as an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Clinical Fellow in the Chief Scientific Officer’s team, leading the development of a national EDI strategy for the healthcare science workforce.

He is currently enrolled in the Oxford Executive Strategy Programme at Said Business School, University of Oxford. He holds two MSc degrees in medical electronics and in healthcare leadership, and a first degree in electronics engineering. He has received many awards for engineering, innovation, and project management.