Spotting hearing loss

Professor De Wet Swanepoel, UP.  (Supplied)

Professor De Wet Swanepoel, UP. (Supplied)

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 360-million people worldwide have disabling hearing loss. While local figures differ, it is estimated that 3.2-million South Africans suffer from this problem, many of who live in areas where hearing screening services are unavailable or inaccessible.

The idea for a smartphone-based hearing loss detection solution was born from the experience of Professor De Wet Swanepoel, full professor of audiology from the department of speech, language, pathology, and audiology at the University of Pretoria (UP), who has served as a consultant to the Department of Basic Education for school health over a number of years.

He worked in collaboration with Dr Herman Myburgh, senior lecturer in the department of electrical, electronic and computer engineering at UP, in the development of the smartphone-based software platform.

Swanepoel’s experience and expertise in early hearing loss detection and Myburgh’s experience from an emerging mobile and smartphone technology point of view, combine to address critical needs through mobile health solutions for hearing loss detection and prevention.

“We were looking for a cost-effective solution using technology that people are used to operating at a grassroots level. Considering the growth of mobile phones in South Africa and the rest of Africa, and the associated data capturing and sharing capabilities of the devices, it made sense to use this platform,” says Swanepoel.

The innovation was conceptualised as a smartphone-based hearing screening technology. To test the feasibility of this concept, an Android-based software application was developed to verify if accurate calibration of standard hearing screening stimuli was possible on entry-level Android-based smartphones.

“In the smartphone market, Android phones are the most cost-effective solutions available. Following calibration tests on our prototype software on a range of entry-level phones, we were pleasantly surprised by the results,” he says.

This led to the development of a user-friendly interface for selecting screening protocols and pre-programmed test sequences. In addition to the hearing test, a data capturing and sharing functionality was included for real-time uploading of data through cellular networks or sharing a database according to filters for date of test and/or facilities where screening was conducted.

At present, large scale clinical trials are underway in schools and a primary healthcare clinic in the City of Tshwane, which are expected to conclude in October. A second phase will commence in August evaluating screening by community healthcare workers visiting families in communities.

This supplement has been paid for by the Mail & Guardian’s advertisers. Contents and photographs were supplied and approved by the NSTF.