Remote tests advance Auburn University Speech and Hearing Clinic's mission to assess hearing in children

By Vicky Santos, College of Liberal Arts



A little boy in Guatemala awaits his prognosis. A few weeks prior, audiologists in the College of Liberal Arts Department of Communication Disorders prescribed some drops for him in hopes of treating his hearing loss. Today's test will determine whether the drops worked on the little boy. He is eight years old.

The test is to be conducted by Kelli Watts in a conference room in Haley Center. Watts provides clinical teaching and supervision for doctor of audiology student clinicians during practicum experiences at the Auburn University Speech and Hearing Clinic. She teaches graduate courses which cover pediatric audiology, electrophysiological testing and balance assessment. This is one of the first tests being conducted remotely, and Watts will watch the child intently on her laptop.

Prior to the testing, Sandra Clark-Lewis, professor emerita and one of the founders of the partnership between Auburn University and the city of Guatemala, tells us that she and Watts prescribed drops after noticing an unusual amount of wax build-up in the child's ears. The remote test today will be compared with his initial test and if there's an improvement, the drops worked if not, then he will have to undergo more examinations.

The room needs to be quiet to ensure the test is administered correctly. Even with a number of us, around seven, in the room, it is silent in the Haley Center conference room. The surroundings in Guatemala, however, are not quite as calm. We can hear sirens and traffic coming through the laptop, but Watts times the test to the best of her ability and persists.

Two graduate students sit near Watts with the boy's file and they carefully monitor his responses to the first set of tests. He is given a series of beeps and has to raise his hand when he hears them. On the next set of tests, he again is asked to indicate hearing the beeps, but this time the volume is lower. Watts focuses on the boy's responses and does not offer any information on whether he is doing well or not.

As an onlooker, this is a nerve-wracking process. One wants to ask, "How's he doing? Is his hearing better? Was it just the wax? Or is it something more serious?" But the child would have to undergo a few more segments of the hearing test before an assessment was made.

It is important to note that without the technology the audiologists are using for the test, the little boy would have gone undiagnosed and untreated for months. The software, purchased with the help of grants from Auburn University at Montgomery and a 2012 Auburn University Competitive Outreach Scholarship grant, is called Blackboard Collaborate, and allows the testing to take place anywhere, as long as there is an Internet connection. Clark-Lewis says that a trusty Internet source is not so easy to come by in Guatemala, but it has gotten better thereby making the remote-testing possible.

After the boy repeats some verbal commands in Spanish, Watts and her students review his chart and determine that the drops have worked. His hearing has improved, and there is a collective sigh of relief in the conference room of Haley Center, and surely in the testing room in Guatemala, as well.

To keep up with this initiative, go to the Auburn University Audiology in Guatemala's Facebook page.

Last Updated: Sept. 26, 2012

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