Having detected hearing loss in as many as six babies with 30 awaiting diagnoses in the 20 months since its introduction, the Netcare hearing screening programme for all newborn babies at Netcare maternity units countrywide, has made a meaningful difference. Ahead of World Hearing Day, which is commemorated annually on 3 March, this initiative goes a long way in ensuring that newborn babies are screened early on to detect possible hearing loss.
This is according to Professor Claudine Storbeck, director of HI HOPES, a non-profit organisation that has been actively enabling early intervention for families of deaf and hard of hearing infants in South Africa for almost 15 years. She has been working with Netcare in implementing the national programme, which is the first of its kind in South Africa.
“In addition to detecting infant hearing loss as early as possible so that it can be addressed and as far as possible prevented from impacting these babies’ development, the Netcare national hearing screening programme has been invaluable in a number of other ways as well,” says Professor Storbeck.
“Not only has it demonstrated how a screening system for newborns can work successfully within the hospital setting, but as a programme instituted across Netcare’s maternity units nationally, it also provides an invaluable model for developing a national screening programme from scratch for the entire South African public and private healthcare sector.
“The programme has also provided us with important data on infant hearing loss and screening interventions and has proved to be a significant means of developing the paediatric screening skills of audiologists. Netcare is to be congratulated for introducing this first national programme of its kind to the country and leading the way in this regard.”
Sharlene Swart, national co-ordinator of the mother and baby wellness clinics located at selected Netcare hospitals, explains that all newborns at Netcare facilities have their hearing screened by professionally qualified audiologists who are members of their professional organisations, including the South African Association of Audiologists (SAAA) and the South African Speech-Language-Hearing Association (SASLHA). The cost of the specialised screening is covered as part of Netcare’s Maternity Passport offering, which can be obtained when expectant mothers book their confinement at a Netcare maternity unit.
Internationally it has been estimated that between four and six in every 1 000 South African children will be born with, or will develop, hearing loss in their first weeks of life. At a national level, this represents a considerable number of affected children.
“Netcare’s path-finding national hearing screening programme has been introduced so that babies can benefit from the specialised service to ensure early referral and diagnoses, and ultimately aims to assist in addressing the challenge of hearing loss in children,” notes Swart.
“Leading international newborn hearing screening experts have provided input on the programme, which was initially piloted at Netcare Park Lane Hospital in Johannesburg with great success five years ago. The South African Government has emphasised the importance of the early detection and intervention in infant hearing impairment and hope this initiative can serve as a model for other similar cooperative arrangements within the health sector nationally,” adds Swart.
Dr Susan Strauss, previous president of the SAAA during the launch and pilot rollout of the programme in 2019 and 2020, said that it had been an exceptional experience for the association to contribute toward the Netcare infant hearing screening programme. She says that the audiologists of the SAAA had gained considerable experience within the Netcare hospitals since the inception of the programme in mid 2019.
“They have had to work in a number of settings, including working with babies in neonatal intensive care units, which has proved to be an exceptional way to develop their skills. These audiologists have in turn been passing on their knowledge to other audiologists of the SAAA, so the Netcare programme has been an invaluable capacity building tool for local audiologists.”
Professor Storbeck says that once infants are diagnosed with a hearing loss, the role of HI HOPES within the Netcare programme is to facilitate family-centred early intervention and support for each affected family within their home context.
“Neonates who have a hearing loss and who do not receive appropriate intervention, treatment and audiological management early on, can experience a range of significant developmental delays including communication, speech and language, as they grow up,” says Prof Storbeck, who is also the director of the Centre for Deaf Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Professor Storbeck says that international guidelines propose that screening for hearing loss occurs by no later than one month of age, and early intervention should be in place by no later than six months of age. The specific interventions will depend on the cause of the hearing impairment and the specific circumstances of the child. They can, however, include amplification, therapeutic interventions, as well as holistic child and family-centred early intervention.
According to the professor, there has never been a formal national data management system of children with hearing loss in South Africa. Netcare in partnership with HI HOPES launched a data management application that facilitates the capturing of appropriate data about the Netcare newborn hearing screening programme. She says that while only data from Netcare hospitals is recorded, it has revealed a number of important trends regarding hearing impairment in children locally.
“The implementation of the Netcare screening programme has been tremendously exciting as it provides many infants with hearing impairment with the opportunity to have their hearing losses addressed timeously so they can develop to their full potential,” she concludes.
To find out more about the services offered through Netcare hospitals and the Group’s other facilities, please contact Netcare’s customer service centre either by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 0860 NETCARE (0860 638 2273). Note that the centre operates Mondays to Fridays from 08:00 to 16:30.