The path to hearing health care access in developing nations
- Published on 29 October 2018
Dr De Wet Swanepoel, first president of the International Society of Audiology from Africa and host for 2018 WCA, is a not-to miss name when it comes to telehealth in audiology.
You are Professor, Department of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology at the University of Pretoria; Adjunct Associate Professor, School of surgery at the University of Western Australia as well as a Senior Research Fellow at the Ear Science Institute in Perth Australia. How do you divide your time between these roles?
I’m based at the University of Pretoria in South Africa but have strong research collaborations with my colleagues in Western Australia where we pursue joint initiatives.
In addition to the above roles, you are also an advisory board member of the Phonak Pediatric board and the Ida Institute. Why did you take on these roles; is there mutual benefit for you and the organisation?
These board positions give me the opportunity to engage with wonderful colleagues around issues that are close to my heart, i.e. pediatric audiology and person-centred audiology. It gives me an opportunity to learn and impact initiatives in these areas.
And then there is President of the International Society of Audiology. What were your aims and priorities during your term of office? Two years in this role, what do you still hope to achieve?
An important priority for me was to see ISA’s continued support for the World Health Organization (WHO) and its initiatives in hearing health care. ISA is an official partner organization to the WHO and directly supports the position of the technical officer for hearing loss and deafness. It was an exciting term that saw the World Health Assembly adopt a resolution on hearing loss in May 2017. With my term ending in October 2018 my last goal is to see the 2018 World Congress of Audiology serve as a platform to highlight the inaccessibility of hearing care in low and middle-income countries whilst stimulating awareness and growth in audiology across the continent of Africa.
Are there are any areas of audiology that you would say are your areas of expertise? Do you have a soft spot for some more than others?
I have a wide-ranging interest that includes paediatrics and electrophysiology. For the past 10 years my interests have however mainly been to explore, develop and evaluate innovative solutions and service-delivery models to improve access to ear and hearing care. These have included teleaudiology, eHealth, mHealth and digital health.
Can you talk a little about the projects and areas of research you are currently involved in?
We’re continuing our work to leverage the rapid growth in information and communication technologies to improve accessibility and affordability along the entire pathway of care in hearing health care. Some of the exciting projects include combining hearing and vision services using the same smartphone platform for national screening programmes and population-based prevalence studies.
You are the founder of hearX. Can you tell us more about this company and the products under this brand? And also hearZA?
The hearX Group is a digital health company with a mission to make hearing care accessible and affordable using smart digital health solutions that anyone can use, anywhere. As a social enterprise it has a big vision to see healthy hearing reach everyone, everywhere. hearX provides clinical solutions on smartphones that include certified audiometry using calibrated headphones, smartphone video-otoscope and speechaudiometry. Consumer solutions include hearing tests on kiosks, websites and smartphone apps (iOS and Android). The national hearing screening test in South Africa, hearZA, was launched in 2016 and on 10 October the US National hearing test, hearScreen USA, on a smartphone was launched in collaboration with the American Academy of Audiology.
What is your hope for hearing healthcare in developing nations? Is there one thing that could really change audiology?
My hope is to see hearing health care prioritised in low- and middle-income countries. This will require increased awareness at all levels and services, including detection, diagnosis and amplification options, that are truly affordable. Service-delivery models require simple tools that can be operated by minimally trained persons to ensure a decentralised community-based model of care and low-cost financing models.
What’s next for you after the WCA?
I have assumed a new role as Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Audiology, which has commenced alongside the WCA. This will be an interesting new chapter in my research and academic career. It’s a daunting but gratifying responsibility.
Dr Swanepoel - a brief biography
Dr De Wet Swanepoel is professor in the Department of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology, University of Pretoria with adjunct positions at the University of Western Australia and is a senior research fellow at the Ear Science Institute Australia. He has published more than 150 peerreviewed articles, books and book chapters and has received numerous national and international awards in recognition of his work. Dr Swanepoel serves as president of the International Society of Audiology and editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Audiology. He is also the co-founder and scientific advisor to the hearX group.