As the old saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. Quite literally this is how the company I currently run got started. It’s a medical device business that was founded by an ENT surgeon. He used to make twice-yearly humanitarian trips. For months before each trip, he and his team would fundraise so that they could purchase the expensive and specialized hearing screening equipment needed while they were there. They would then donate and leave it behind at the clinics they visited. But upon each return trip, he often found this equipment damaged or missing. Or worse, it went unused because of a shortage of professionals trained on how to operate the units. Frustrated by what he saw, he thought there had to be a better way.
Something else was happening at that same time. He was struck by the prolific use of mobile devices in these developing countries. Entire nations seemed to completely skip the landline stage and jumped straight to digital. In 2002 one-in-ten people in Uganda owned a mobile phone. Today, cell phones are as common there as they are in the United States. Could the same hold true for how some specialized medical testing was performed? Could entire populations bypass conventional tools and move right to more modern technologies? With the advances being made in mobile device technology, we think this is possible and are seeing evidence of it occurring today. A great example is what is happening right now in the field of audiology.
Supply Cannot Keep Pace with Demand
Hearing loss is the world’s leading disability. According to the World Health Organization, 360 million people across the globe suffer disabling hearing loss. That is roughly 5% of the world’s entire population. Two-thirds of these people live in developing countries. 32 million are children while 1 in 3 adults over the age of 65 is affected. That number will jump to half by the time they reach 85.
Now consider this. In the U.S., the field of Audiology is set to grow at a healthy rate of 29% by the year 2024. But even at that, only 3,800 new jobs will be created, bringing the national total of Audiologists to just under 17,000. That’s 1 for every 19,000 Americans. Bear in mind that over the next 20 years an average of 20,000 people per day will celebrate their 65th birthday. You can see how demand quickly outpaces the supply of specialists. This problem is significantly exacerbated in developing countries, many of whom might be lucky if they have 1 specialist in the entire country.
Mobile Can Change the Game for Hearing Health Care
The best way to solve the problem? Make it easy and cost-effective to enable more non-specialists to participate in hearing health care. And use mobile device technology to make treatment efficient and highly portable. This is what we have done. We took an iPad and we turned it into a very specialized medical device – an audiometer. But we also did something different. We automated the function of the hearing test so that it works like playing a game. And we added smart background noise monitoring so that the device can be used outside of a traditional – and very expensive – sound booth. What that means is that now almost anyone can administer a hearing test in any reasonably quiet environment. Like a school library, a long-term care facility, or a clinic.
What mobile medical devices make possible is the ability to bring the test to the people, rather than expecting people to travel to the test. In many underserved nations, it is simply not possible for people to trek the long distances needed to visit a hospital or a clinic typically located in an urban setting. With mobile medicine, no longer does specialized care need to be relegated to a specialist’s office.
Enabling Non-Hearing Health Professionals to Participate in Hearing Testing
This shift isn’t just happening in developing nations – it is happening here at home as well. Yes, perhaps it is easier for us to travel for specialized care, but we still often suffer long wait times to see a specialist. Or worse, problems are simply left undetected because no one is looking for it. Enabling more people to administer tests that could previously only be done by someone trained in the field – a family physician or a school nurse for example — is helping us to identify more problems, earlier, and at significantly less expense.
But let me be clear. My objective is not to use mobile medical devices in place of highly specialized professionals. Rather, we see them as an opportunity to help those in real need move more quickly to the front of the line. In audiology, for example, automating hearing testing means that many more individuals can have access to care, and those who truly need to see a specialist are not waiting in a queue with those who have no real need to be there. We also see an opportunity for healthcare teams to collaborate on care regardless of their geographic location. For example, a test can be administered in one location by a non-hearing health professional and the results can be accessed and analyzed digitally by a specialist in another.
Now when our founder travels to his faraway missions, he and his colleagues simply pack a couple of iPads into their carry-on cases. During their short stays, they can test hundreds of patients. But more importantly, they are training local staff to administer the tests. Today, these mobile medical devices are being used in more than 30 countries. Many of which never had the conventional audiology equipment, jumping straight to mobile medical devices instead.