Data from the World Health Organisation shows that more than five per cent of all the people in the world (about 360 million) suffer from permanent disabling hearing loss, and more than 32 million of these are children. In developing areas, up to 80 per cent of people with hearing loss have no prospect of early detection.
So a new smartphone app - hearScreen' - a lightweight, automated and easy-to-use mobile health solution ideal for developing countries and use in rural areas is just what the ear-doctor ordered.
An article published in the International Journal of Audiology this week reports on the innovative app that will make it easier and cheaper to screen people, including young children and the elderly, for hearing loss.
The project was led by Professor De Wet Swanepoel at the University of Pretoria (UP), South Africa, in partnership with colleagues at UP and at The University of Western Australia and Ear Science Institute Australia. UWA's Adjunct Professor Robert Eikelboom is one of the article's co-authors and is hoping to use the app in an Australian setting, particularly in remote communities.
"Hearing is the cornerstone for developing language, for learning to speak and to communicate," said Professor Swanepoel, an audiologist at the Department of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology at UP and adjunct professor at UWA's Ear Sciences Centre. He is an expert in the early detection of hearing problems in babies and children. "Even minor hearing defects can have a major impact on language development and the academic performance of children, because they simply get lost within the noisy environs of a classroom."
With the introduction of a new South African health policy in 2012 that requires all Grade 1 students - more than 1 million every year - to be screened for hearing loss, Professor Swanepoel saw the need to develop a mobile and easy-to-use hearing screening device that could replace the cumbersome and heavy apparatus that are currently used.
The newly developed app adheres to international calibration standards, can be loaded onto a low-cost, smartphone, is automated, and continuously monitors background noise to ensure reliable testing. A screening takes only one minute and the data can be uploaded via the mobile phone network to a centralised site for evaluation and recommendations.
"Anyone who knows how to operate a mobile phone can set up the ‘hearScreen' device," said Professor Swanepoel, who is also an executive board member of the International Society of Audiology. "It significantly improves and alters current models of school and community-based identification of hearing loss.
"Both Africa and Australia need cost-effective and sustainable methods with which to identify hearing loss in young children," he said. "Mobile health technologies such as this app are becoming more and more important in taking healthcare to the people who would otherwise not have access to hearing screening."
Several field trials are currently underway in schools and primary health care settings. Findings demonstrate screening outcomes equivalent to the current gold standard. The user-friendly interface and affordability opens up new models for early access to hearing loss detection within underserved communities.
The hearScreen solution will be made available towards the end of the year.