Hearing loss in the developing world: Evaluating the iPhone mobile device as a screening tool

Shazia Peer, Johannes J Fagan


Background. Developing countries have the world’s highest prevalence of hearing loss, and hearing screening programmes are scarce. Mobile devices such as smartphones have potential for audiometric testing.

Objectives. To evaluate the uHear app using an Apple iPhone as a possible hearing screening tool in the developing world, and to determine accuracy of certain hearing thresholds that could prove useful in early detection of hearing loss for high-risk populations in resource-poor communities.

Methods. This was a quasi-experimental study design. Participants recruited from the Otolaryngology Clinic, Groote Schuur Hospital, Cape Town, South Africa, completed a uHear test in three settings – waiting room (WR), quiet room (QR) and soundproof room (SR). Thresholds were compared with formal audiograms.

Results. Twenty-five patients were tested (50 ears). The uHear test detected moderate or worse hearing loss (pure-tone average (PTA) >40 dB) accurately with a sensitivity of 100% in all three environments. Specificity was 88% (SR), 73% (QR) and 68% (WR). It was highly accurate in detecting high-frequency hearing loss (2 000, 4 000, 6 000 Hz) in the QR and SR with ‘good’ and ‘very good’ Kappa values, showing statistical significance (p<0.05). It was moderately accurate in low-frequency hearing loss (250, 500, 1 000 Hz) in the SR, and poor in the QR and WR.

Conclusion. Using the iPhone, uHear is a feasible screening test to rule out significant hearing loss (PTA >40 dB). It is highly sensitive for detecting threshold changes at high frequencies, making it reasonably well suited to detect presbycusis and ototoxic hearing loss from HIV, tuberculosis therapy and chemotherapy. Portability and ease of use make it appropriate to use in developing world communities that lack screening programmes.

Authors' affiliations

Shazia Peer, Division of Otorhinolaryngology, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town, South Africa

Johannes J Fagan, Division of Otorhinolaryngology, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town, South Africa

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Hearing loss; Developing world; Screening; Ototoxicity; Presbycusis; Mobile technology; Smartphones; Portable audiology; HIV; TB; Chemotherapy; ARVs; Anti-TB therapy; Global health

Cite this article

South African Medical Journal 2015;105(1):35-39. DOI:10.7196/SAMJ.8338

Article History

Date submitted: 2014-04-16
Date published: 2014-11-22

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