05/06/2014. Professor De Wet Swanepoel from the University of Pretoria developed hearScreen, a cellphone application to accurately test hearing. Picture: Oupa Mokoena

Pretoria - A smartphone application makes it so easy to test your hearing that even a three-year-old can do it.

Thanks to the work of Professor De Wet Swanepoel and his team at the University of Pretoria’s department of speech-language pathology and audiology, almost anyone can now test their hearing by using the hearScreen application.

“When my daughter Nina turned 3 years old, I used the app to test her hearing. When I was done she promptly turned around and said she now wanted to test me, too,” Swanepoel said.

And she did – successfully.

He first realised a cheaper, more accessible method to detect hearing loss was needed while being involved in school-based screening.

“Hearing is the cornerstone for developing language, for learning to speak and to communicate,” he said.

Since 2012, it has been a requirement that all Grade 1 pupils’ hearing be tested at school. This is quite a challenge because 1.1 million new pupils enter Grade 1 each year.

The conventional piece of equipment, called an audiometer, costs around R20 000, weighs a couple of kilograms, needs electricity to run and requires a trained professional to use it. Because of these challenges and specific requirements, children at schools are often not tested.

In addition, the machine cannot detect environmental noises, and this can lead to inaccurate results.

“I have seen first hand how challenging it is to conduct the test with the current equipment. I wanted to come up with a solution,” Swanepoel said.

The end result was an application, designed in collaboration with Dr Herman Myburgh, an engineering colleague at the university, that can run on a Samsung Pocket Plus smartphone costing R800 and a headset costing R500.

Both the phone and the headset are “off-the-shelf” products that people are familiar with and can easily access. The innovation allows for calibration that complies with national and international standards. The application has been tested on more than 800 pupils in the city by comparing the results from the smartphone test with that of a conventional audiometer.

Swanepoel and his team managed to cut the costs of screening tests by 300 percent and provided solutions that conventional equipment could not.

“We addressed the noise issue. The microphone in the cellphone measures the environmental noise and will indicate when it is too loud. There is no other screener that does this,” Swanepoel said.

Also, instead of lugging around a machine weighing several kilograms, the phone – 350g – fits in one’s pocket and operates on a battery.

The Department of Health did not keep an electronic database of the children screened – they merely ticked a box indicating the child had been tested.

“Now everyone’s information tested with the application is sent to a database that can later be used to document trends and follow-up on children who need assistance,” Swanepoel said.

The application also doesn’t require someone with expertise to operate it and is fully automated, requiring the user to only press a button. The test will within a minute confirm whether the person has a hearing problem or not by playing tones of various frequencies in each ear.

“You can teach someone to use it in three minutes, whereas with the audiometer someone’s competency can affect the outcome of the test,” he said.

For the moment the application is used as a calibrated health-care device but they are in the process of developing an application for the general public.

“In the next year we want to develop a self-test for older children and adults that can be downloaded from an app store,” he said.

Swanepoel is also working on optimising the hearScreen so illiterate people can use it.

“We want to put hearing health care into the hands of average people and change the way hearing health care is delivered,” he said.


The application was a finalist in the National Science and Technology Forum 2014 Awards and the winner will be announced on July 3.

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Twitter: @LalivZ


Say what?

l Six thousand South Africans are born with hearing loss every year.

l This means 17 babies are born each day with varying degrees of permanent hearing loss.

l No clinical examination can tell if newborn babies suffer from hearing loss – only a hearing screening test can.

l Less than 10 percent of South Africans have the opportunity to have their hearing screened immediately after birth.

l School-based screening is often the first opportunity a child has to have their hearing tested.

l Hearing loss is one of the key reasons children fail at school, because they get lost in the noise.

l Globally, 360 million (5.3 percent) of people have permanent disabling hearing loss, according to the World Health Organisation.

l In South Africa, three million people suffer from permanent disabling hearing loss. - Pretoria News