New data just published states that approximately half a billion people – or 6-8% of the global population – suffer disabling hearing loss. It is the most common disability identifiable at birth. And although newborn hearing screening programs do exist in many Canadian provinces and American states, few offer universal school-aged hearing screening programs. Unfortunately, it is impossible for newborn screening to identify hearing loss that may develop or progress over time. And as we know, left undetected, hearing loss can have an impact on cognitive, language, and social development, all of which put our kids at risk of lower self-esteem, behavioral issues, and poor academic performance. Doesn’t this beg the question – why don’t our children get their hearing tested more often?
Recommendations for School-Aged Hearing Screening
According to the American Academy of Audiology (AAA), school-aged hearing screening should be conducted at preschool, kindergarten, grades 1, 3, 5 and either 7 or 9. From there it is recommended they be tested every 10 years, or yearly if a problem is identified.
Unfortunately, according to Ian Windmill, president of AAA, “there are not enough Audiologists to meet the growing global demand”. So, how can we address this growing gap between the availability of resources and need for services?
Addressing this Growing Global Shortage
Back in 2014, SHOEBOX Audiometry and the University of Ottawa Medical School partnered on a school-aged hearing screening program. At the time, a handful of medical students under the guidance of their professor Dr. Matthew Bromwich, an Otolaryngologist at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, organized a volunteer group that they called iHear. By leveraging the automated capabilities of SHOEBOX Audiometry, the medical students visited local elementary schools and were able to offer highly sensitive and specific hearing testing to in the elementary schools. In their first 2 years as a volunteer organization, almost 400 children were tested and more than 30 were identified as having signs of hearing loss. Several of those were considered serious enough conditions that the children were referred for follow up assessments and treatments. Conditions that very likely would otherwise have gone undetected.
In the years since, the program has successfully expanded to include students from the medical schools at McGill University, Dalhousie University, and the University of Saskatoon. Today, iHear volunteers have tested more than 800 children nationwide. 94 have been referred on for additional audiometric testing and 18 required referral to an Otolaryngologist. In Ottawa, where the program was started, follow-up testing is performed at the Interprofessional Rehabilitation Clinic at the University of Ottawa.
The children aren’t the only ones who benefit from iHear. In total 196 current and graduated medical students have been involved in the program. iHear is and has helped them gain hands-on training and experience in hearing testing – a practical skill that may otherwise not have been available to them. And they gain a keen appreciation for the importance of regular hearing screening programs. A skill that can be applied to their future patients of all ages.
What’s next for iHear?
Adam Rocker, a University of Ottawa Medical Student and National Lead for iHear is encouraged by the initial expansion but recognizes there is more work to do. With a goal of giving all Canadian children the best chance to succeed academically, iHear hopes to expand the program nationally and possibly even internationally.
If you are a medical student interested in getting involved, or a school administrator who would like to inquire about bringing a school-aged hearing screening day to your classroom, you can contact the national program at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s give our kids everything they need to meet their full potential.