Imagine your job site is 300 miles from the nearest city and the nearest audiologist, yet federal government regulations still require you (and all other workers exposed to high levels of noise in the workplace) have to have an annual audiogram.
That’s why Dr. Adam Pickens, an assistant professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health, is developing a mobile hearing screening application called hEAR. This app, which is self-administered and requires only a set of headphones and an Android device, could take the place of a formal hearing testing in an audiologist’s office.
“What makes us stand out from other apps on the market right now is our adherence to best-practices for self-administered tests,” Dr. Pickens said. The hEAR application is built on the premise of Bekesy audiology, which is identified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a best practice for self-administered hearing screening examinations.
“There are other hearing screening apps on the market, but they require an individual to administer the test, which tends to introduce more error in the data collected,” Dr. Pickens said. “This is a clinically relevant screening tool that doesn’t require a trained professional to administer it.” All an audiologist needs to do is interpret the results, which the app will automatically e-mail to him or her.
“It’s as easy as can be,” Dr. Pickens said. The hEAR application asks the subjects to press their finger to the device’s screen for as long as they hear the test tone and release contact with the screen once they can no longer hear it. “I’m very proud of it,” Dr. Pickens said. “I think we’re moving in the right direction.”
The hEAR app is an example of mobile health technology that can benefit any number of underserved groups, from schoolchildren to elderly adults. Developed in collaboration with Sejun Song, a computer engineer at the Texas A&M Dwight Look College of Engineering in the department of engineering technology & industrial distribution before moving to University of Missouri-Kansas City, the hEAR app was one of six app contest finalists at MobiCom 2015 in Paris Sept. 7-11, 2015 and the only winner that was not submitted by a large company.
“It was exciting,” Dr. Pickens said. “There is recognition that there’s value, and that’s very nice.”
All screening tests have false negatives and false positives, so the app has a series of algorithms that help detect these problems in data collection. The app will then automatically re-administer that frequency later in the test to see if there was an error. The background noise of the testing environment can also be an issue, pilot tests have shown, so the researchers are developing an external piece of hardware that will sample the background noise and the app will then give a yes or no about whether it is quiet enough to do the test there.
Future research is planned for hardware and software testing to find combinations that allow for optimal hearing screening across multiple populations in sub-optimal testing facilities and rural communities among high-risk populations. The team also recognizes that it would be valuable for the app to work in multiple languages, so they are developing a Spanish version, with other languages planned for the future.
The app still needs to be rigorously tested and gain approval that the app’s code is secure enough to satisfy patient privacy regulations before it can be commercialized.
“Several companies have shown interest in the app,” Dr. Pickens said. “We hope to bring it to market within next three years.”
“This is another excellent example of a mobile health device being developed by Texas A&M investigators to enhance population health through better assessment and intervention,” added Dr. Marcia Ory, regents and distinguished professor and associate dean of research at the Texas A&M School of Public Health. “Given the increasing numbers of persons in our rapidly aging population who will experience hearing loss, this is a most timely and welcomed device.”