Newborns across the United States are screened to check for hearing loss. This test is important because it helps families better understand their child’s health, but it’s often not accessible to children in other countries because the screening device is expensive.

A team led by researchers at the University of Washington has created a new hearing screening system that uses a smartphone and low-cost earbuds instead. The team tested this device with 114 patients, including 52 babies up to 6 months old. The researchers also tested the device on pediatric patients with known hearing loss. Their tool performed as well as the commercial device, and it correctly identified all patients with hearing loss.

The team published these results Oct. 31 in Nature Biomedical Engineering.

“There is a huge amount of health inequity in the world. I grew up in a country where there was no hearing screening available, in part because the screening device itself is pretty expensive,” said senior author Shyam Gollakota, a UW professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. “The project here is to leverage the ubiquity of mobile devices people across the world already have — smartphones and $2 to $3 earbuds — to make newborn hearing screening something that’s accessible to all without sacrificing quality.”

Because babies can’t tell doctors whether they can hear a given sound, these tests rely on the mechanics of the ear.

“When an external sound is played, hair cells in the inner ear move and vibrate. The result is a very quiet sound that our instruments can pick up,” said co-author Dr. Randall Bly, an associate professor of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at the UW School of Medicine who practices at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “This screening is very sensitive, meaning that if there is a concern about a patient’s hearing, they will be referred for a more thorough evaluation with a specialist.”

For the test, doctors send two different tones into the ear at the same time. Based on those tones, the hair cells in the ear vibrate and create a third tone, which is what the doctors are listening for.

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