Audiologist at the Department of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology at the University of Pretoria and President-elect the International Society of Audiology, Prof De Wet Swanepoel, has led development of an innovative smartphone app, called hearScreen, that will make it easier and cheaper to screen people for hearing loss.

The app was developed in response to the new South African health policy in 2012 that requires all Grade 1 learners (more than 1 million every year) to be screened for hearing loss. Prof Swanepoel envisioned a mobile and easy-to-use hearing screening device that could replace the cumbersome and heavy apparatus that are currently used.

“hearScreen is the first product of its kind, so we were literally covering uncharted territory that made the development process challenging at times,” said Prof Swanepoel. “However, through constant verification we were able to develop what we believe is a total hearing screening solution, something we are very proud of. We are optimistic about the opportunities it will offer to people previously unable to access hearing health.”

hearScreen adheres to international calibration standards, can be loaded onto a low-cost Android smartphone and can be used with off-the-shelf headphones. A screening takes only one minute and the data can be uploaded via the mobile phone network to a centralised cloud-based server for evaluation and recommendations.

“The app was designed for low-resource settings and anyone who knows how to operate a mobile phone can use it,” said Prof Swanepoel. “We accomplished this by ensuring a user-friendly interface incorporating automated test sequences with quality control features, such as environmental noise monitoring, to ensure reliable results.”

“Africa needs cost-effective and sustainable methods with which to identify hearing loss in young children. mHealth 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,” continued Prof Swanepoel.

Several field trials are currently underway in schools and primary healthcare settings across the country, including Tshwane and Mamelodi, as well as internationally in Australia and Canada. Most recently the Western Cape Department of Health has come on board and, according to Prof Swanepoel, “are eager to pioneer the technology for community-based hearing healthcare. We are supplying the first 16 hearScreen smartphone devices to them in January as a special order.”

“We also have several research projects underway collecting data from consenting individuals,” added Prof Swanepoel. “The findings demonstrate screening outcomes equivalent to the current gold standard.“

hearScreen will officially launch in the first quarter of 2015, and further diagnostic features for a version called hearTest will be available towards the end of 2015.

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