App designed to detect hearing loss makes a big noise in South Africa

Millions of South Africans suffer from debilitating hearing loss. Early screening is vital, but represents a challenge in a vast country where rural populations lack access to medical experts.

A new smartphone app is attempting to address these problems by detecting hearing loss and connecting patients with experts.

The hearScreen app, developed at the University of Pretoria in 2013, uses a smartphone and a pair of headphones to test for hearing loss. The results are captured and can be shared with hearing loss experts.

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The idea for the app was born when chief executive Nic Klopper served on a Department of Health committee implementing a policy aimed at screening 3.5 million children for hearing loss annually.

“Realising that the prohibitive costs of current test equipment and technical expertise required meant that less than 5% of children were receiving these services made me look into exploring alternative solutions,” he says. “Capitalising on the rapid growth in smartphone technology and connectivity just made sense.”

Klopper got in touch with Dr Herman Myburgh at the University of Pretoria to develop hearScreen. “It provides the first smartphone-based hearing test that allows acoustic calibration of test stimuli according to prescribed national and international standards,” says Klopper.

The intention has always been to provide a solution for decentralised community-based access to hearing healthcare. More than 80% of the app’s usage is in underserved and rural areas.

“Hearing screening is the first access point for the identification of hearing loss to initiate appropriate interventions that minimise and negate the negative impact of hearing loss,” says Klopper. “At present, hearing test equipment is prohibitively expensive and inaccessible to the vast majority of South Africans.”

The response has been positive in South Africa, where hearScreen has partnered a number of NGOs to ensure quick and efficient rollout. The Topsy Foundation, which supports orphaned and vulnerable children in South Africa, plans to use the tool in its early childhood development programme.

Klopper says the app was deliberately designed to enable a layperson with minimal training to use a test accurately. “In fact, the iconography was planned so that even someone illiterate could facilitate an accurate test,” he says. “Automated test sequences and quality control measures like environmental noise monitoring ensure reliable testing with cloud-based data management and surveillance for tracking and referral purposes.”

It is not just in South Africa that hearScreen is making its presence felt.

More than 360 million people globally suffer from hearing loss. The app is now being used in 25 countries, and the company is working with the World Health Organisation and the US aid agency USAid.

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