All babies should be screened for hearing impairment soon after birth. The doctor would clap loudly and if the baby reacts, it is assumed they can hear. This is a natural practice that has been followed in most developing countries till date. Unfortunately, this method is completely wrong. A clap is usually of a high-decibel frequency and completely omits low-band frequency testing. Therefore, there are chances that the baby may still be unable to hear clearly; a blow that is revealed only as the baby grows up. And too often, the damage is irreversible causing life-long hearing impairment.
The man behind the innovation
Nitin Sisodia along with his wife Neeti Kailas started Sohum Innovation Lab, an initiative to transform India’s healthcare, in 2012. They developed a portable device that can detect hearing impairment in newborns. In 2010, Nitin won the prestigious Stanford-India Biodesign Fellowship funded by the Union Government’s Department of Biotechnology, in partnership with the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi and the Indo-US Science and Technology Forum. What followed is an immersive research of medical facilities in resource poor settings. After coming back to India, Nitin started working with AIIMS in their child development clinic. One day, a parent walked in with his son, who was little over five years, saying that his son was unable to speak. After a few medical tests, the doctor revealed that the real problem was that the child couldn’t hear. Research indicates that it’s possible for a child to speak even if they can’t hear; provided timely intervention takes place. Unfortunately, in this case that was missing and the child would neither be able to speak nor hear, for life. Nitin, Founder of Sohum Innovation Labs, says,
It was shocking – the problem wasn’t the lack of testing equipment or the availability of implants; but early testing, which must be made possible.
After this incident, Nitin and Neeti, Sohum Innovation’s business strategy head, decided to disrupt the sector and what followed was a rigorous field research lasting nearly six-months, with a group of designers, physicians, business people, and like-minded people. Both of them are armed with degrees from National Institute of Design.
The severity of the problem
The ability to hear is extremely critical as babies depend on it to learn everything – from language to speech development.
One of the most common birth disorders – congenital hearing loss – is a result of both genetic and non-genetic factors. While the genetic factors are a separate debate, the non-genetic factors are mostly associated with resource-poor economies such as India where, unlike advanced healthcare systems, hearing impairment goes undiagnosed even though universal screening is mandatory at the time of birth. Thus, when it is discovered at 4+ years (which is usually the case), it’s too late to reverse the damage and this leads to a host of problems such as impaired communication skills, hearing loss and even possible mental illness; all of which have a deep impact on the child, emotionally and economically life-long. Globally, 5,00,000 hearing impaired babies are born annually of which, nearly 1,00,000 are in India. And all this preventable damage needs is early screening, which can facilitate timely treatment and rehabilitation.
The Sohum device
“To get accurate information, a device needs to check the brain waves of the child to yield the data on hearing abilities – this is the gold standard technology that’s used globally,” affirms Nitin. This means that there are existing, high-quality equipment that are already performing the job well. But as Nitin demystifies these devices’ incapabilities to suit Indian needs, one realises the constraints Sohum Innovation has successfully battled with. The four main problem areas, as Nitin says, are:
Firstly, for the device to perform accurately it needs a sound-proof setting. Given that Indian hospitals are generally noisy, this isn’t possible and creating sound-proof rooms are difficult given the inherent high infrastructure costs. Secondly, these foreign devices have expensive disposable units costing between Rs 500 and Rs 1,500, which makes each test an expensive affair of at least Rs 3,000 to Rs 5,000. Thirdly, setting up the entire facility is also expensive, costing Rs 8,00,000–15,00,000; thus, limiting such facilities in government healthcare systems, where it is the most paramount. And finally, only specialists can use these devices.
Nitin and Neeti’s innovation, however, takes in to account all the limitations of India’s diverse healthcare systems; right from plush facilities such as Fortis to rural healthcare units run by Government of India. Based on brainstem auditory evoked response (BAER or ABR) technology, the Sohum device has an inbuilt algorithm that filters external noises and the electrodes used for the testing are non-disposable; both bringing down the cost significantly. Furthermore, to make it a market-driven solution; one that can be embraced by all kinds of healthcare facilities; Bengaluru-based Sohum Innovation Labs is deploying it in two ways – smaller facilities such as public health centres have an option to lease out the model, whereas the bigger facilities, wherein price isn’t a constraint, can buy it at a one-time cost. The husband-wife duo are working to sell the units at 1/3rd of the existing costs.
Currently, the Sohum device is installed in five hospitals – two in Bengaluru, one in Manipal and two in Guatamela (South Africa) and 175 successful tests have been conducted. By end of June, Nitin is confident that they will touch 1,000 tests. Post this, Sohum Innovation has won many laurels; a testimony of the dire need for such devices in developing nations such as India. Neeti was one of the five Young Laureates who received the global Rolex Awards for Enterprise in 2014 and walked away with a grant of 50,000 Swiss francs (approximately Rs 34 lakh). More recently, they were the winners of Sankalp Awards 2016 as well.
As Nitin says,
Once the innovation scales up; developing nations will be able to battle a long-pending problem, with relative ease.
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