Software developed by University of Pretoria researchers could bring cheaper hearing tests to South Africa's rural areas. The hearScreen technology, which has been patented and is in the process of being licensed, can turn any smartphone into an audiometer to test people's hearing.
According to the 2011 census, about 4% of South Africa's 51 million citizens suffer from some form of hearing impairment, ranging from mild hearing difficulty to complete deafness – but this number may be higher due to a lack of access to quality hearing tests.
“Access and quality of access both represent a fundamental challenge of accessible health care for deaf infants, deaf children and deaf adults,” says Jabulane Blose, chief executive officer of South African National Deaf Association. “Many rural people have to travel considerable distances to big cities and towns to access hearing test facilities simply because such facilities are not available at district hospitals.”
Prof De Wet Swanepoel, a co-developer of the hearScreen technology, says: “We're looking for a solution to make hearing tests available at grassroots level. Testing has always been an isolated service, and we wanted to make use of current trends in smartphone technology.”
Swanepoel, an audiologist, teamed up with Dr Herman Myburgh, a senior lecturer in the department of electrical, electronic and computer engineering at the University of Pretoria, to create the hearScreen software.
The software ultimately has the ability to turn an android smartphone into a hearing test, with calibrated headphones, and then transmits that data to a cloud based server so that the researchers can monitor the data.
“We've developed the software in such a way that it is automated: the test sequences are automated,” Swanepoel says. “This means a layperson can be trained to do the test. We've tried to make it so user friendly that someone illiterate can use the test … in community centres, early childhood development centres – we want to decentralise hearing healthcare services.”
Asked about the usefulness of this technology, Agata Runowicz, an audiologist at the University of Stellenbosch and previously part of the Association for Persons with Physical Disabilities in the Eastern Cape, says that, while she is not familiar with the University of Pretoria's screening audiometer, “anything could be helpful, [especially] for children … Lack of hearing screening poses a serious problem, often leading to difficulties at school.”
“We're leveraging this technology to do things that five years ago weren't possible,” he says. For about R7 000 a school, clinic or community centre can own a smartphone, with the app, headphones and a carry case, Swanepoel says. “Typically, hearing test kits start at about R35 000.”
The technology is currently in a “soft launch phase”, Swanepoel says. Fifteen devices are being trialled in the field and the Western Cape government has 16 devices that they are testing. So far, they have screened more than 5 000 people, he says.
However, there is more to this app than simply acting as a hearing test. “It is also linked to a referral database so that the result [of the test] is geotagged, and a text is sent to the person or a parent.
Also, if the person fails the hearing test, the app will suggest the three closest locations for that person to see a healthcare practitioner, he says. “It's not just a better device; it is a whole new solution for closing the [diagnosis-treatment] loop.”
hearScreen, which has been patented by the university, has won numerous innovation awards, including the prestigious NSTF-BHP Billiton award. Swanepoel says that the team is in the process of licensing the technology to a private company.
Asked if this would affect its price and the ability of poor people to access the technology, Swanepoel says: “From the very start, our approach has been that this is a low-cost solution. We're aiming for it to be a solution for other African countries and other developing countries.”