From South Africa to Global Success – The Story of hearScreen

by | Apr 30, 2024 | Blog, Impact Stories

Hearing problems are among the most common health issues in young children, with lifelong impacts on their development and quality of life. Research has shown that hearing loss affects at least 22 out of every 1000 children in underserved communities in South Africa. These issues can hinder a child’s ability to develop speech, language, and social skills.

The ability to hear sounds and words is vital for children to learn to communicate and understand the world around them, however, children with hearing loss may struggle in these areas. Unfortunately, such impairment can often go undetected, especially in low-resourced areas where systematic screening programmes, screening equipment, and trained personnel may be lacking or limited.

Children from low-resourced communities are at a higher risk of experiencing hearing loss, if goes undetected due to the lack of or limited routine hearing screenings. This hidden health issue can impede their development in speaking, reading, achieving academic success, and developing social skills. As a result, when these children enter school, they are already at a disadvantage compared to their peers. Without timely intervention, the gap between them and their peers continues to widen, making it almost impossible for them to catch up.

It is essential to prioritise timely screening and intervention for children to support their development in language, academic capabilities, and social interactions. By identifying and addressing these concerns at an early stage, we can empower children to maximise their potential and bridge the development gap. This will ensure equal opportunities for quality education and academic success, ultimately enhancing their overall well-being.

Ground-breaking mobile hearing screening solution for young children in SA

At the South African Innovation Summit in 2015, Innovation Edge challenged participants to modify their existing innovations to address an early childhood problem. The successful adaptation was a hearing screening digital technology, hearScreen®, developed by renowned audiology Professor, De Wet Swanepoel and his colleague Professor Herman Myburgh from the University of Pretoria in South Africa.

The award-winning innovative solution proved to be a perfect fit for the early childhood sector. It was evident that it had the potential to provide accessible, affordable and much-needed screening services to young children in underserved communities.

Utilising a smartphone and calibrated headphones, hearScreen®, now registered under the hearX Group, allows minimally trained individuals to conduct quick and accurate hearing tests from any location.

“It’s extremely important to identify the problem in a child early, as any kind of hearing loss or disorder can affect their ability to understand and hear the teachers or their caregivers communicate to them. The whole idea was to leverage the power of smartphones to deliver an affordable and reliable standard hearing screening that is easy to operate anywhere, allowing minimally trained persons like community workers and ECD practitioners to conduct hearing screening of young children.” – Professor De Wet Swanepoel, Co-founder of hearX Group

When hearScreen® was developed, there were no equivalent  technologies available that allowed for the scalable hearing screening in young children in South Africa. Existing technologies at the time were expensive, difficult to operate, and required paper-based data management. hearScreen® was founded to address this gap in the market.

How does hearScreen work?

hearScreen® is designed to operate on Android-based smartphones and tablet devices, using calibrated headphones to deliver screening. Administrators conducting the test are required to undergo basic audiology training before using the digital solution, to ensure that they understand the specific concepts related to hearing screening. During the exam, the screener explains the procedure to the patient in their native language, then starts the automated protocol, and records the patient’s responses. The application then analyses the responses and provides a “pass”, with no further action needed or a “fail” with referral options. If a referral is necessary, hearScreen® can provide information on the nearest clinic.

Supporting innovation and enabling mass hearing screening for South African children

Innovation Edge provided funding of R1.5 million and strategic support to enable the adaption of hearScreen® for use in schools and early learning centres. Through the support, the hearX team embarked on a pilot project in Mamelodi, outside Pretoria, between 2016 and 2017. They were able to map out ECD centres in the area and subsequently trained teachers and practitioners from 302 ECD centres to use hearScreen®. The pilot demonstrated the impact and potential of hearScreen®, prompting us to actively support the team in expanding the project. We began seeking opportunities to scale the project, focusing on potential revenue streams, optimising the referral pipeline, and reviewing the intellectual property implications within the current legal structure.

We also connected the team with potential funders, and partners who could help to ensure that  the project reaches a larger number of young children. These partners included government agencies, civil society organisations, and private sector collaborations. In terms of technology, hearX successfully created the mHealth Studio, which includes the mHealth Studio App for accessing and launching hearScreen® and other clinical applications, as well as the mHealth Studio Cloud for data management.

 “The investment and support from Innovation Edge has allowed the hearX Group to make a significant impact in the field of healthcare by providing innovative and effective screening solutions across the world.” – Seline van der Wat, COO of hearX Group

Collaboration for vision and hearing screening

After completing the pilot in Mamelodi, the project team forged a partnership with Peek Vision, a UK-based company that specialises in mobile health solutions and focuses on vision screening. Innovation Edge’s funding also covered the development of the hearScreen-Peek Vision application – a joint initiative that effectively lowered the cost barriers associated with screening children for hearing and vision loss in low-resourced areas.

“The project investment and support from Innovation Edge was instrumental in enabling hearX Group to make a profound impact in healthcare. Prior to revenue and commercialisation of the product, Innovation Edge recognised the value of initial hearScreen technology. What started off as one product has now grown into 16 screening and diagnostic technologies that are used not only in South Africa, but also in Sub-Saharan Africa, South East Asia, and Europe. Innovation Edge’s non-financial support, including assistance in navigating operational challenges and connecting us with experienced project managers, has been invaluable in our community screening and impact projects.” – Seline van der Wat, COO of hearX Group

hearScreen’s impact in South Africa and abroad

Stories of Change

Some hearScreen® users share their insights about the impact of the technology in their communities:

“With hearScreen we were able to screen the hearing of over 15 000 children and adults in the greater Tshwane area. Our hearing screening project extended hearing healthcare services to ECD centres, schools, home visits, clinics and hospitals. Five underserved communities were empowered with this tool that allowed integration into existing health programs, contributing to increased impact and awareness about hearing loss within the communities.” – Tirelo Bosha , Community Projects Leader, Tshwane

“Thank you to all for your wonderful support. I have enjoyed introducing hearScreen to Tanzania, to The School of St Jude and to the wider community. Over 300 students have had access to hearScreen and hearTest.” – Glenys Abrahams, Teacher, The School of St Jude.

The next chapter of hearScreen

hearScreen® continues to have a positive impact on individuals worldwide, benefiting both children and adults. The latest development from hearX involves enhancing hearScreen®  to include screening for both hearing and vision with the integration of Vula Vision*. Additionally, the Group is excited to announce the upcoming launch of a new innovative product in a completely different category in late 2024, further diversifying their portfolio.

Innovation Edge continues to support innovative solutions for early childhood challenges in South Africa. Click here to learn more.

*Only available to residents in South Africa.

Author: Dimpho Lephaila – Communications Associate at Innovation Edge