In recent years, we have seen the integration of revolutionary technologies such as AI to offer better services in various sectors be it banking, logistics or healthcare. AI is changing how we deliver healthcare in the modern-day. It has countless applications when it comes to healthcare. According to the report ‘Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Healthcare Market 2020-2026′, the global market for AI in healthcare is projected to grow at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of around 51.5 percent.
AI is being used to detect diseases such as cancer more accurately nowadays and at an early age. AI is also being used in fields such as primary care, telemedicine, dermatology, radiology among others. PwC said in a report, “AI is getting increasingly sophisticated at doing what humans do, but more efficiently, more quickly and at a lower cost. The potential for both AI and robotics in healthcare is vast. Just like in our everyday lives, AI and robotics are increasingly a part of our healthcare eco-system.”
AI has been used to also overcome traditional barriers to the detection, diagnosis and treatment of disabling hearing loss across the globe. South Africa-based HearX Group has developed what is being dubbed as the ‘world-first AI system advance ear care’. HearScope is a digital otoscope for affordable access to ear care using a smartphone.
According to its website, HearScope captures high-quality images and videos from a smartphone or desktop. This innovative product includes the world’s first AI image classification feature to support categorising eardrum images. It enables health providers across primary to tertiary levels to accurately diagnose patients with ear disease to ensure the right treatment is provided. In an exclusive interview with International Finance Magazine, hearX Group chief executive officer Nic Klopper discusses the firm’s innovative product and services, technology and his vision for the company among other things.
1. Can you tell us a bit about hearScope?
Chronic middle ear infection affects more than 300 million people worldwide. Ear disease is the leading cause of hearing loss and the second most common reason for children to visit a doctor. The need for accurate solutions that can assist with detection of ear diseases, triage patients to receive the required healthcare service and be used within telehealth systems, is constantly growing.
hearScope is a digital video otoscope that solves all of these needs. It can connect to a smartphone or desktop, running the free hearScope application, to capture high-quality images or videos of the eardrum and ear canal. This innovative solution offers an Artificial Intelligence image classification feature that accurately and instantaneously categorises captured images. hearScope can be used within any telehealth system where the video or images are used by healthcare professionals to diagnose patients. hearScope can be used by people with minimal healthcare training and enables healthcare assistants to capture images prior to examinations, attach otoscopy images to patient records and allow the healthcare practitioner to formulate a diagnosis easily and quickly.
hearScope is a cost-effective and innovative solution that changes the way ear examinations are performed and contributes toward affordable hearing care for everyone, everywhere.
2. Can you elaborate on the different products and services hearX Group is offering across the markets it operates in?
Passionate about affordable access to healthy hearing for everyone, everywhere; hearX® takes pride in providing an entirely new way to overcome traditional barriers to the detection, diagnosis and treatment of disabling hearing loss across the globe. hearX Group has two divisions with core focuses on either the clinical business approach, or on the consumer approach.
The B2B division has a product range which is split into two categories: Screening and clinical hearing tests, and hearing assessments for occupational health.
The screening test solutions consist of innovative digital hearing and vision screening technologies for use by hearing healthcare providers. Our flagship product hearScreen®, is an innovative pure tone screening audiometer on a smartphone for clinically valid, time-efficient and low-cost screening. hearDigits allows for free online hearing screening from a professional’s website and Vula Vision offers a quick eye screening on a smartphone/tablet to screen a patient’s visual acuity at a distance.
hearX Group also provides affordable, evidence-based clinical solutions for hearing healthcare. hearTest is a certified pure tone diagnostic audiometer on a tablet; and combined with calibrated headphones the solution also supports extended high-frequency testing. hearScope is a digital video otoscope with AI image classification, enabling the capturing of high-quality images and videos of the eardrum and the ear canal during examination.
hearTest Occ Health is hearX’s tablet-based occupational health audiometry solution, used by hearing conservation professionals, to make occupational health compliance easy and affordable.
The hearX Self Test Kit is a low- and no- touch audiology solution for accurate, comprehensive and remote diagnostic assessments outside a booth.
The B2C division centres around Lexie Hearing®, which introduced a revolutionary way of ensuring that hearing aids are accessible to everyone through a first-of-its-kind subscription model. Customers subscribe to Lexie Hearing for all inclusive hearing care for a pair of Bluetooth enabled hearing aids and access to the Lexie mobile app. The subscription includes the regular delivery of batteries and other hearing aid accessories, a protection plan for breakages and losses, and Lexie Care – unlimited, real-time video or voice support from a team of hearing experts, six days a week. Through the use of smart technology and remote care, Lexie Hearing has brought medical-grade, direct-to-consumer hearing aids to the US market, at 80 percent less than the average cost of hearing aids.
3. Can you tell us about the technology behind your innovative products?
The audiology industry has seen very little innovation over the last century. hearX® has revolutionised and disrupted the industry by creating technologies that use smart algorithms, artificial intelligence and big data to detect, diagnose and treat hearing loss around the globe, making cost-effective hearing accessible to those who need it most.
hearX® is an ISO certified company and we pride ourselves in developing both CE and FDA certified medical devices. Our technology enables the use of smartphones/tablets and headsets for evidence-based hearing screening, which dramatically reduces the cost and simultaneously makes the process more efficient.
All our solutions have been clinically-validated to produce accurate and reliable test results and there have been numerous peer-reviewed publications on the clinical accuracy of the applications. The headphones are calibrated annually to further ensure the accuracy of test results.
Results are uploaded to our cloud-based server called mHealth Studio Cloud where it is securely stored in accordance with the data protection regulations within each region in which we operate. The results can also be downloaded for further data reporting requirements, if required, and the system can automatically generate and send messages to patients (or parents) on outcomes of the tests or instructions for any follow-up triage services.
4. How can technologies such as AI be integrated to offer quality hearing care?
A lack of trained healthcare personnel and diagnostic low-cost video-otoscopes in low- and middle income countries, means ear disease more often than not remains undiagnosed or incorrectly diagnosed. Otoscopy is the most common diagnostic tool and starting point to identify and address ear disease. hearX® designed the hearScope digital video otoscope, to impact access to ear and hearing health by making the tool affordable, easy-to-use and innovative in providing Artificial Intelligence (AI) support.
The hearScope AI image classification feature enables health practitioners to receive instantaneous classification results on images taken by the digital otoscope. The AI system is trained on thousands of tympanic membrane images diagnosed by ENT specialists and applies machine learning to provide an accurate image classification. The current beta version can classify normal tympanic membranes with an accuracy of 99 percent, wax obstruction with 100 percent accuracy and chronic perforations with a 98 percent accuracy. The abnormal classification indicates a high probability of a pathology present in the ear and suggests that the individual should opt for a professional examination of the tympanic membrane.
This advanced AI classification feature supports clinicians in their diagnosis of ear conditions and plays an important role when triaging patients. The image classification result enables a clinic nurse or healthcare assistant to make decisions on appropriate referral paths and specialist consultations where needed. This solution not only adds value with regards to classification of ear disease for timely intervention and prevention of complications like hearing loss, but is also extremely valuable in prevention of ear disease.
5. How did Covid-19 impact you? What are some of the major challenges faced by the company during the Covid-19 pandemic?
Prior to the global Covid-19 pandemic ‘remote care’ was only made use of as a matter of convenience and personal preference. During the pandemic it rapidly escalated as a matter of safety first and foremost. The Covid-19 pandemic and social distancing has severely affected hearing healthcare and retailer clinics globally and has made it increasingly difficult for professionals to provide their patients with treatment and support. It has changed the way in which they need technology and the way in which they consume it, to future-proof their clinic and ensure a continuous income stream.
hearX® has been able to use the challenges posed by Covid-19 as an opportunity to springboard changes and advancements in the audiology industry, by releasing the hearX Self Test Kit, a breakthrough remote hearing care solution. The hearX Self Test Kit is a tablet-based hearing test solution that allows patients to take a hearing test remotely, receive counseling, buy and receive hearing aids and have them adjusted, without having to physically consult a professional.
We also released a retailer solution that allows people to take a hearing test remotely from the retailer’s website or by themselves in-store and buy hearing aids should they wish to, when receiving their results.
The disruptions caused by Covid-19 continue to be a challenge, but it also provided unexpected opportunities. Now that people are used to the “new normal” these technologies that hearX® offer to clients have become the new standard.
6. Are there new products from hearX that are in the pipeline?
As a leading audiological tech company, there are always exciting developments in the pipeline. You’ll need to watch this space to see.
7. You have launched Lexie Hearing in the US recently. Do you plan to enter new markets in the near future?
As an industry leader, we are always looking at new markets and assessing them on merit.
8. Can you tell us about your vision for the company? Where do you see hearX in the next five years?
hearX® has managed to grow from strength to strength since commercialising technology from a local University back in 2016. While we have touched the lives of 1.4 million people to date, we plan on connecting over 10 million people with hearing services globally by 2026, by scaling our technologies into new markets, and also by releasing a handful of new technologies too.