Neeti Kailas is a designer who wants to make a difference, improving life opportunities for hearing-impaired children by detecting infant hearing loss early on. Her passion for design is coupled with a desire to transform health care in India, and she has used her skills to create a non-invasive portable device that screens newborn babies for hearing impairment.
Together with her engineer husband Nitin Sisodia, Kailas launched the Sohum Innovation Lab, and the lab’s first product is a device to screen babies for hearing loss. Kailas is personally connected to the project, through an Indian childhood friend who was born with hearing problems. “She’s had a totally different life to the rest of us, with very few opportunities,” says Kailas. Her friend is just one of many. Every year, some 100,000 hearing-impaired babies are born in India, but there is no routine screening countrywide to detect the condition, and the existing tests are expensive and require skilled health-care workers. Early screening is vital because, if left unaddressed, by the time the baby is six months old, a hearing impairment can impede the development of speech, language and cognition.
Kailas’s device works by measuring auditory brainstem response. Three electrodes are placed on the baby’s head to detect electrical responses generated by the brain’s auditory system when stimulated. If the brain does not respond to these aural stimuli, the child cannot hear. The device is battery-operated and non-invasive, which means babies do not need to be sedated, as some previous tests have required. Since the device is inexpensive and portable, it can be used anywhere. “Another of the device’s major advantages over other testing systems is our patented, in-built algorithm that filters out ambient noise from the test signal. This was really important for us because, if you’ve ever been to health clinics in India, you’ll know how incredibly crowded and noisy they are,” says Kailas.
The device is still a prototype, and Rolex Award funds will allow Kailas to start clinical trials later this year. Her plan is to launch the device in 2016, first focusing on institutional (hospital) births, with the aim of screening 2 per cent of such births in the first year, before scaling up on an annually accrued basis.
If the clinical trials prove successful, Kailas and her partner will be embarking on an ambitious project that she hopes will ultimately allow every single baby born in India to be screened for hearing impairment. Kailas acknowledges that ensuring this happens in a country like India – with its complex, chaotic health-care system – is “a tall order”, but she has devised an innovative approach to rolling out the technology through paediatricians, maternity homes, health-care workers and entrepreneurs, who will buy the devices and then charge a small fee for every test. A door-to-door service will be particularly important in rural areas, where health clinics are scarce. While it is an untested approach, Kailas is confident that it will work. “Indians don’t need much encouragement to become entrepreneurs. When the IT boom hit, for example, Internet cafés mushroomed all over the country,” she says.
Kailas’s hope is that the screening programme can be adapted to include screening for impaired vision in newborns, or for identifying high-risk pregnancies.
Published in 2014