Newborns across the globe may soon have their hearing tested easily – and inexpensively – thanks to a new device developed by a team of researchers at the University of Washington.
Inexpensive earbuds make the difference
The new hearing screening system uses a smartphone and low-cost earbuds to determine whether a baby has any hearing deficit and is an accurate alternative to high cost commercial testing systems employed by most U.S. hospitals. Although the majority of American parents are not charged for newborn hearing tests, the billing for such a screening can run upwards of $100. That makes screenings virtually inaccessible to children in other countries.
The new device is one more step in the slow march toward worldwide health equity.
Making testing accessible
“There is a huge amount of health inequity in the world. I grew up in a country where there was no hearing screening available, in part because the screening device itself is pretty expensive,” said senior author Shyam Gollakota, a UW professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. “The project here is to leverage the ubiquity of mobile devices people across the world already have — smartphones and $2 to $3 earbuds — to make newborn hearing screening something that’s accessible to all without sacrificing quality.”
The research team tested the device on 114 patients in three hearing clinics in the Puget Sound region. Participants included 52 babies up to 6 months old. They also tested the device on pediatric patients with known hearing loss. Their tool performed as well as the commercial device, and it correctly identified all patients with hearing loss. The results were published earlier this fall in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering.
How it works
Earbuds for the screening are connected to a microphone in a probe that is placed in an infant’s ear and which detects the mechanics within the ear. The microphone records any sounds from the ear and sends them to a smartphone for processing. The inexpensive earbuds replace the expensive speaker used in commercial testing designed to play the two tones without any interference.
“When an external sound is played, hair cells in the inner ear move and vibrate. The result is a very quiet sound that our instruments can pick up,” said co-author Dr. Randall Bly, an associate professor of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at the UW School of Medicine who practices at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “This screening is very sensitive, meaning that if there is a concern about a patient’s hearing, they will be referred for a more thorough evaluation with a specialist.”
Screening rolled out in Kenya
Researchers are now using their prototype device to screen newborn hearing in Kenya in a project collaboration with the University of Washington’s global health department, the University of Nairobi and the Kenya Ministry of Health.
The project will provide vital information to scientists and global health experts on how to scale up use of the new device, especially in countries where infant hearing screening is a luxury rather than the rule.