One in six Australians are affected by hearing loss, with 2,000 children fitted with hearing aids for the first time each year. Most hearing loss is due to accident or illness, rather than birth defects, and for children the effects can be huge.
Explained Dr Harvey Dillon, director of the National Acoustics Laboratory (NAL), “All too often undetected hearing problems can cause children to fall behind during primary school until someone thinks to have the child’s hearing checked. By the time this happens, the child may not only be behind academically but may have come to deeply believe that he or she will never be able to keep up with the other children at school.”
The Healthy Kids check, a test designed to check the health of children before they start school was scrapped due to cost in 2015. This test included a rudimentary hearing check, which is crucial to address national health issues.
Sydney app Sound Scouts, created by cmee4 Productions, comes as a solution to the gap left by Healthy Kids and demonstrates how creativity, science, and technology can be harnessed and used outside of medical institutions. Sound Scouts has developed a gamified screening experience to test children’s hearing, designed to screen the hearing of children from the time they start school.
“What we’ve seen in data from Australian hearing is that while the newborn hearing screening test picks up children with moderate to severe hearing loss, we’re seeing almost double the number of children found to have hearing loss one to three years after they start school and by this time they’re falling behind academically and it also impacts them socially,” explained Carolyn Mee, founder of cmee4 Productions.
“What has been missing in the hearing healthcare system is a low-cost, easily administered, reliable test of hearing, like Sound Scouts, that can be widely applied to children around school entry, so that no child has to go through years of school at a disadvantage to others, because of unmanaged hearing loss,” she says.
The Sound Scouts app is a flagship product of cmee4 Productions, utilising the cloud, data, and mobile technology to provide a health solution that is accessible to parents and children outside of schools and health clinics.
The Sound Scouts hearing test is a game that takes the form of a narrative driven story, testing children’s hearing through game based activity. Parents or carers download the app and put in key information including the child’s age, as the game is adapted to the age of the child rather than the child’s learning abilities. The child plays a 15 minute interactive game and with each interaction data is collected and sent to the cloud to be analysed by algorithms, which then deliver the result of the child’s hearing ability.
The games revolve around an interactive bionic dog called Patch. The test looks and feels like a game, targeted towards young children and can be played on any tablet device from home. Children follow the Patch the dog who works at a National park. One day the ranger goes missing and Patch needs the child’s help to find her by solving a series of challenges using their ears.
So far the response from the app has been positive, especially in smaller communities or more rural areas where people have limited access to hearing professionals. Trials have tested hundreds of children and have shown a high level of engagement and interaction with the game, Mee said.
“We’re utilising mobile technology, cloud based technology, we’re utilising games and just bringing all these little elements, technologically innovative elements together to provide a hearing screening solution that is accessible, and affordable,” said Mee.
The app tests three different types of hearing issues, including sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL), conductive hearing loss, and auditory processing disorder (APD). Mee explained that APD is a brain-based hearing issue that affects the child’s ability to hear in a noisy environment, which are typical school, classroom and playground types of environments.
“Auditory Processing Disorder is said to effect somewhere around two to five percent of children so there’s nothing on the market available anywhere that we’re aware of that has this ability to screen for APD and the other conditions,” Mee said.
Sound Scouts incorporates language into screening tests along with traditional tone tests, and in terms of the Australian environment, Mee believes the app is one of the first devices to screen using language and tone to cover all hearing loss conditions.
The app is priced at $14.99 for one test session and gives users a free test upon sign up. The price point is compared to $100 dollars for a traditional hearing test at an Australian health clinic. Mee said that for users who buy in volume the price decreases to $10 for each test, making the app an affordable screening option for hearing that can be conducted at a time that’s convenient for parents.
“I think in these modern times you’ve got a lot of working parents, two parent working families and it’s very hard to take time off to go and have your child’s hearing tested so Sound Scout’s enabled parents to test at home, it’s really accessible,” said Mee.
Hearing tests for children require holding their attention for a certain amount of time, which every parent or carer knows can be tricky. Mee said Sound Scouts is so effective because the gamification of the screening test engages children for the right amount of time to record and analyse all the data points.
Sound Scouts was created in collaboration with the National Acoustic Laboratories and has attracted the support of Australian Hearing. The app received $45,000 in seed funding back in 2011 from the Digital Media Initiative through the NSW Government, which followed a grant of just under $1.1 million from the Medical Devices Fund Grant for NSW Health in 2015.
With the recent funding from NSW Health, Sound Scouts will be able to expand and offer translations into a number of languages over a broader range of applications. Mee has received interest from markets in the US and the UK with plans to commercialise and expand globally. Sound Scouts will also be running a pilot with Sydney Local Health District as part of their marketing strategy in order to work with other communities around Australia.
Image: Carolyn Mee. Source: Supplied