UP expert who brought hearing test to millions receives Chancellor’s Award for Research

Posted on December 17, 2023

“By embracing creativity and cutting-edge solutions, we can address the challenges we face in healthcare and beyond,” said Prof Swanepoel, recent recipient of UP’s Chancellor’s Award for Research.

Professor De Wet Swanepoel of the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology Department says his passion is “driving big ideas that can have a positive impact on people’s lives, with a particular focus on seeing healthy hearing for everyone, everywhere”. So it’s no wonder that he recently became a recipient of the Chancellor’s Award for Research, which was presented to him at UP’s Academic Achievers’ Awards in October this year.

Prof Swanepoel is directing research for the World Health Organisation (WHO) Collaborating Centre for Prevention of Deafness and Hearing Loss at UP. Their primary focus is on leveraging digital technologies and innovative service-delivery models to enhance ear and hearing healthcare accessibility and affordability. They are investigating early identification and diagnostic techniques for hearing loss, and integrating these findings into telehealth and other digital platforms for broader outreach.

Currently the centre, in partnership with the hearX Foundation, is providing hearing care services facilitated by community health workers using digital technologies to detect hearing loss and to fit hearing aids in low-income settings. Hearing care specialists, like audiologists, are involved in training, remote telehealth support and programme management.

“The lack of access to hearing services in regions like Africa fuelled my desire to find applied real-world solutions,” Prof Swanepoel said. “Understanding the profound impact that hearing loss can have on an individual's quality of life, along with the life-changing potential of available treatments, I felt a responsibility to explore innovative real-world solutions.

“Research plays a pivotal role in preventing hearing loss. It helps identify risk factors, guides public health interventions, and facilitates the development of new technologies and strategies to address the gap. In contexts like South Africa and Africa, research can empower local communities with knowledge and resources, making ear and hearing care accessible and cost-effective.

“In our specific area of research, we are developing and validating new digital technologies to detect hearing loss earlier, to diagnose it accurately and to support interventions. These developments are also making new service-delivery models possible that can bring services to people instead of requiring them to seek care in centralised hospital-based care.”

The focus of much of Prof Swanepoel’s research is on the early identification of hearing loss. This is crucial because early detection can lead to more effective interventions and dramatically better outcomes.

He recognised the opportunity to transition traditional screening and diagnostic techniques into digital solutions that allow for telehealth approaches, enabling a wider reach and more accessible care.

One such example is hearScreen, which is designed to leverage mobile technology and cloud computing to make hearing healthcare more accessible and efficient. The concept was to transform the conventional, often costly, medical-grade hearing test equipment into an application that runs on a low-cost smartphone.

This app, which uses calibrated headphones, provides a straightforward, user-friendly smartphone app that can be used by minimally trained people to facilitate clinical screening on children and adults.

They also pioneered a consumer app for hearing screening that is accessible to everyone, regardless of location. This app, which can be used on any phone with any headphones, intelligently adjusts the signal-to-noise ratio based on the user’s responses, enabling it to assess hearing ability within just three minutes.

This technology was introduced in South Africa in 2016 with the launch of hearZA, which became the country’s first national hearing test available on smartphones. After it’s huge success, the hearWHO app was launched as the official WHO hearing screening tool supporting several languages. Since its launch, hearWHO has reached nearly 500 million people in over 190 countries.

“I hope that universal access to timely hearing healthcare becomes available, so no one is left behind due to geographical or socio-economic constraints,” Prof Swanepoel said when asked about his hopes for the future.

“Comprehensive education about hearing health, ensuring that every demographic understands the importance of hearing preservation and the risks of neglecting it, is also important,” he added. “We also need to foster a culture that prizes innovation in solving real-world problems. By embracing creativity and cutting-edge solutions, we can address the challenges we face in healthcare and beyond.

“UP is making significant strides in audiology, distinguishing itself through groundbreaking research and innovation. Our research group has been instrumental in the development and validation of cutting-edge digital technologies, and novel service-delivery models, all with the aim of enhancing hearing care accessibility.

“Notably, our department has earned the distinction of being the WHO Collaborating Centre for the prevention of deafness and hearing loss in Africa – this prestigious designation is not just a title but a reflection of our active role in shaping global hearing healthcare policies and practices.

“Robust partnerships and our collaboration with global entities such as the WHO means that UP is not just contributing to the field; it is pioneering innovations that offer real solutions, setting a benchmark for hearing healthcare not only in Africa but around the world.”


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