The World Health Organisation believes that more than half of the instances of hearing loss in the poorest parts of the world could have been avoided by primary prevention techniques that Texas A & M University might have just uncovered.
With the help of a 3D printer and just $6.42 in parts, anybody can turn a smartphone into a low budget otoscope and take photos of the inner ear that can uncover problems in the making.
Even a basic hospital-grade otoscope costs hundreds of dollars and simply isn’t on the radar for medical facilities in a lot of countries. So this simple bit of kit has the capacity to change lives.
Hearing loss is a global problem
The WHO estimates that 360 million people suffer from hearing defects ranging from a partial impairment right through to complete deafness. Simple check-ups could serve as an early warning system and pick up a lot of minor problems before they degenerate into serious issues.
In the poorer parts of the world such as Sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia, this simply does not happen.
The students have developed a low cost LED otoscope that, in combination with a smartphone, can take pictures of your inner ear. These can then be analysed by an expert. Of course at some point automatic scanning could take over and we could simply upload the pictures into a management system. That’s some way off, but even this simple step could save people a lot of pain and heartache.
They have entered this design into a competition organised by the group and hope that it can actually go into production for use in developing nations.
The design will be open source
Robert Hunt and Tessa Bronez, who both graduated with degrees in Biomedical Engineering this year, want to make their designs open source so others can download and build the otoscope. They also want people to improve upon it and make it an increasingly viable solution for the Third World.
“We think we can use smart phones to reduce costs, because a lot of smart phone has a camera,” Bronez said. “Even in developing countries, smartphone penetration is very high.”
Catching the wave
The students didn’t just look for the cheapest way to get results. They also experimented with different types of budget light. They found that altering the wavelength helps to improve the contrast in the final image, but certain colors are better at picking up particular conditions.
So they found a way to combine the red, blue and green LED lights in the design. Hunt said: “Certain types of infection are just easier to see with the green light than the white, and vice versa.”
Some are more susceptible
There are all manner of reasons why someone may be more prone to hearing loss. They include genetic factors, birth complications, ear infections, a reaction to drugs, aging and environmental factors. If a person worked in a noisy factory for decades, for instance, especially one that isn’t subject to the First World Health and Safety regulations, it can inevitably take a toll.
A deaf worker can struggle to find employment, too, while a deaf child in a poorer country might simply not get the level of education they deserve. So there is a knock-on economic effect on the individual.
As the WHO estimates that more than 5% of the population suffers from hearing loss to some degree, the low-cost otoscope could be a simple and effective breakthrough that makes a significant difference to people’s lives.
We really hope it does.