Duke researchers develop new device to diagnose hearing loss among underserved populations

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To combat the high rates of infection-related hearing loss in rural and underserved communities across the United States, a cohort of Duke research assistants, board-certified clinicians, engineers, data scientists and employees of Norton Sound Health Corporation have developed a new audiological disease screening technology.

The project developed a new tympanometer, a device traditionally used to identify middle ear diseases, including infections. Conventional tympanometers are expensive and their results can only be interpreted by expert audiologists. Residents of many remote communities do not have access to expert audiologists. In Alaska, where the NSHC is based, 75% of communities cannot access a hospital by road.

The researchers aimed to make the technology more accessible by creating a user-friendly, smartphone-compatible tympanometer, so patients could interpret the results without the help of an audiologist.

Samantha Robler, a clinical audiologist and researcher at NSHC, said the idea for the new medical technology arose because “tympanometry is needed” to improve “the accuracy of screening programs in rural areas”, but it doesn’t was not possible as there is currently no “Easy-to-use, portable, inexpensive version screening available.”

According to Robler, low-income communities are disproportionately exposed to preventable ear infections due to factors such as poor access to health care and clean running water, crowded living conditions and increased exposure to smoke. secondary. This technology has far-reaching implications for individuals in these communities, Robler said.

“We know that when children don’t have early detection intervention, it leads to career problems, poor school performance, poor social development, and poor quality of life,” Robler said. “So if we can create a tool, using tympanometry, that makes screening possible in terms of hearing and finding causes related to infection, then the impact is huge.”

Currently, the new tympanometer is in its prototype phase, and researchers plan to develop the prototype into a fully functional device in the coming months.

Once the device is complete, with the help of a grant from the National Institute of Health, the team will conduct a clinical trial with the product in rural South Africa, according to Mike Palmeri, professor of engineering practice biomedical and anesthesiology. The tympanometer is slated for preliminary release for voluntary testing in late 2022. On that trajectory, it would be incorporated into clinical research trials in 2023 and manufactured for dozens of rural communities.

Early in the project, Susan Emmett, associate professor of surgery and global health at the Duke School of Medicine, partnered with Robler with the goal of increasing access to screening technology among underresourced communities. The couple later contacted Palmeri about potential funding sources.

In the spring of 2020, Robler approached Duke MEDx, a joint program between the Pratt School of Engineering and the School of Medicine, to request funding. His team received a grant from MEDx, supplemented by various other internal funding sources.

Once the team’s IP application was submitted and approved, Palmeri recruited a group of graduate and undergraduate students to join. They have since worked on improving the design and testing prototypes.

“I think another important thing about this [project] is that we’re breaking the mold on something that’s driven primarily by student power and ideas and skills, and that’s just awesome,” Palmeri said.


Hall Friedmann
| Deputy News Editor

Halle Friedman is a junior at Trinity and associate editor of the 118th volume of The Chronicle.

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