Inspiration gripped engineer-cum-industrial designer Nitin Sisodia while observing the goings-on in a noisy clinic at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). A parent walked in, he recalled, complaining that his son couldn’t speak. The attending doctor explained it was because the child was deaf and that it was too late to do anything about it. “That shook me up and prompted me to ask if there was a possible solution,” he said at press meet.
Ten years on, Mr. Sisodia doesn’t have a way to cure deafness but has made a diagnostic device to check if babies as young as three months may have a hearing problem. The device, comprising a headset connected to an iPad-like monitor, can be used as preliminary tool to check for early signs of deafness.
The SOHUM test
Globally, 8,00,000 hearing-impaired babies are born annually, nearly 1,00,000 in India. SOHUM, as Mr. Sisodia’s device is called, hopes to screen 2% of hospital-born babies in the first year, before scaling up.
Though a variety of tests exist to determine deafness, the latest (and most reliable) one for newborns is the so-called auditory brainstem response (ABR) test which involves placing electrodes on a baby’s forehead and ears and sending an electronic “click”. The brain’s response, in the form of electrical waves, provides information on the time it takes for structures of the auditory pathway to respond and thus can be used to identify an underlying hearing problem. However, a drawback of using an ABR is that it needs to be done in an extremely quiet room.
Mr. Sisodia’s system, which he developed as part of a fellowship at the Stanford Biodesign programme, claims to eliminate the latter requirement. “We have made a novel algorithm that can extract the relevant signal even in noisy surroundings,” he told The Hindu, “Because that’s how most hospital settings in our country are. Also, it doesn’t require a highly-skilled expert to perform the test.”
Results from the test are available immediately as a PASS or REFER. The latter means that the child needs to go in for further tests with audiologists to confirm the diagnosis and begin remedial measures such as a cochlear implant or appropriate hearing aids.
Sisodia, who is the founder and CEO of SOHUM Innovation Lab, said that he was funded by the Department of Biotechnology, and in talks with the Health Ministry to be able to use the device in a primary health-care settings.
The battery-operated device is non-invasive, which means babies do not need to be sedated, which is necessary in the current, and “risky”, testing in process at present.
SOHUM has so far been tested in six hospitals across the country and costs about ₹6 lakh. Mr. Sisodia claims this is about a third of what the best-in-class imported ABR systems cost. The testing cost is also between ₹600 and ₹1,200. “In contrast, a few private hospitals offer the tests at a price of ₹4,000 for every test,” he noted.
Dr. A. Thakar of the ENT department at AIIMS said Mr. Sisodia’s device was a novel breakthrough and necessary to break the monopoly of imported devices. “Companies charge high simply because they can… SOHUM is a viable effective challenge to them,” he added.
~ Master Yoda