It was a fascinating day; if you ever get the chance, and have an interest in the scientific dimensions of cochlear implantation, then listen out for Rich Tyler (here's a recent lecture), Gerry O'Donoghue (another lecture) and Paul Govaerts to name but a few.
I didn't, however, spend the whole day with my jaw hanging at the sheer cleverness of this cochlear implant stuff. I've moved on from that; after all, Tom is living proof that it is a phenomenal technology that can change lives. We've been waiting for the literature to catch up. More important were several inter-related issues that surfaced during the course of the day... things that place our recent history into stark perspective.
Whichever way you look at it, there is now more than enough evidence of the published, quantifying scientific kind that bilateral cochlear implants work and add considerable benefit to those who aren't assisted by hearing aid. Some of it, admittedly, has emerged since the request for bilaterals for Tom was turned down back in June 2006 but, largely speaking the professionals have known for plenty long enough. There is also a mountain of anecdotal evidence that describes how binaural hearing (hearing in both ears whether it be a mixture of hearing aid and implant or just implants) enriches people's lives by placing them back into the world of sound in a way that unilateral hearing can't match and that is very difficult to quantify.
Essentially, you will struggle to find anyone working in the field who doesn't feel that bilateral implantation, particularly for young children with their years of language development ahead of them, would enhance the quality of recipient's lives in a deeply profound way. One of the key messages from the conference is that's a given and the earlier the better.
So, as there doesn't seem to be much dispute about the value of bilateral implantation, discussions touched on the thorny realities of public sector funding and the ongoing NICE appraisal. It was at these junctures that things got heated, and rightly so.
The position that has been taken by funding bodies in this country - using the lack of research evidence (of which there isn't really a lack) as a convenient scapegoat for not providing for bilateral implantation - is increasingly untenable. It has always been a disgraceful head-in-sand position anyway; it doesn't take a medical genius to see that cost is the only deciding factor. To pretend otherwise is deceitful and one of a number of ways of infuriating the average parent. Never was it suggested that Tom only wear one hearing aid during the period before implantation and, as Mark Lutman mentioned during yesterday's conference, there is little scientific evidence to back up the provision of two hearing aids as opposed to one. So why were we furnished with two? Because gut feeling tells everyone that aiding both sides is best of course.
The seminar reached its emotional peak when the vice-chair of the British Cochlear Implant Group (BCIG) fielded questions on her presentation; essentially a report of the findings of last year's survey of bilateral provision across this country's 22 cochlear implant programmes. What her results suggested was that there were huge discrepancies in not only bilateral provision across the country but also between implant programme's attitudes. There were few statistics presented; we mainly saw examples of the answers given by the respondents. While it isn't surprising that there are differences of opinion and approach across the country, what alarmed was the tone, particularly when it came to funding.
At Tom's appeal one of the panel asked me a question along the following lines - 'If you had two deaf children and two implants, as their parent how would you choose to share them out?'. This guilt-laying approach, possibly designed to appeal to my liberal social conscience, completely misses the point in terms of how the medical profession should be addressing this issue but is indicative of the way the Health Service works itself. The Implant Programmes are presented with the same choices by funders; for every bilateral someone else misses out on one. Keep asking and we'll take the funding away altogether.
The BCIG vice-chair concluded by outlining the recommendations they were proposing to make to NICE. Their policy statement proposed a list of who should get bilateral implants:
- patients following meningitis/ossification
- in case of additional sensory handicap
- where there is a loss in performance or device function in the first ear
- for participation in research studies.
The contrast with practice in many other countries is stark. A surgeon from Sweden spoke about how bilateral implantation for profoundly deaf children is standard. It took a fight, by parents and the Implant Centres, but they were prepared to fight. With the group who represent the Implant Programmes only offering watered down recommendations, it would seem that we're not up for that sort of fight in the UK. Why?
Is it something to do with how we think about children in this country?