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April 3, 2007 > New mobile audiology van

New mobile audiology van

Rebecca Kelly and her graduate students will hit the road this fall in a new mobile audiology van designed to improve the work that California State University, East Bay does in detecting childhood hearing loss.

The university already provides low-cost hearing tests for about 900 preschool and grade school children a year. The van-the first of its kind in the East Bay-will allow the university's communicative sciences and disorders department to increase the number of kids it screens in the community and to do a more efficient job of it.

A combination of grants is buying and outfitting the van: The Thomas J. Long Foundation contributed $50,000; the Eden Township Healthcare District gave $57,000; and Wells Fargo Bank kicked in the final $25,000 to make the project happen.

"The Eden Township Healthcare District Community Health Fund invests in programs and services that benefit the health and well-being of local residents," said CEO George Bischalaney. "We are pleased that Cal State East Bay not only shares this vision, but also has the expertise and focus to make this vision a reality. Together, we can provide much-needed health services right in the communities that need it the most."

Most of the children the university tests are in Head Start programs that serve low-income families that may not have access to health care services.

Early detection is important in managing the effects of hearing loss on a child's language and social development as well as future success in school. Most children are tested in infancy, but hearing problems can occur later through ear infections and wax build up, said Kelly, an assistant professor in the CSUEB Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders and head of the audiology program.

During the kid-friendly test, the child wears headphones, which transmit sounds. The tester asks the child to perform a simple task like dropping a plastic chip into a bucket whenever a sound is heard. The tests require a quiet environment. But under the current conditions, just setting up the testing station is a challenge.

"We pack up the equipment in my car and set it up in whatever room is available," Kelly said.

Many times the room available is the back of a classroom or in a kitchen with a dishwasher running. Sometimes it's hard to find an electrical outlet to plug in the equipment. All of that slows down the screening time, so Kelly can only schedule one foray into the community per day.

With the van, the testing site will be always set up and ready to go. Kelly expects the van will cut in half the time it takes to screen each child.

Even more problematic than the time wasted under the current conditions is the failure rate of the screenings.

"A really good screening program should have only a 20 percent re-screening rate," Kelley said. "Our rate was much higher. We're re-screening 40 percent."

Children are failing the test simply because the room they were tested in was too loud and distracting. Having to schedule a doctor's appointment for a child to be tested again is a hardship for many of the parents who may have to take off work and ride public transit to an appointment. Plus waiting to get a doctor's appointment can create parental anxiety about the child's health.

"We were attracted to this project because it takes services out to the community where the kids are and makes it more accessible," said Tim Silva, senior vice president and senior regional community development manager for Wells Fargo Bank.

The project also benefits Cal State East Bay students, he said, by making it easier for audiology majors to complete the service hours they need to get their degrees since the number of screenings will increase.

"The vision for this van is not only to serve the population we're already serving, but to increase it," Kelly said. That's a goal the donors who are funding the van endorse.

"The mobile audiology unit complements our foundation's support of greater access to health care services for East Bay families," said Robert Coakley, executive director of The Thomas J. Long Foundation. "The mobile nature of the clinic will increase the number of screenings that can be performed in a single day, as well as expansion of screening sites to include senior centers and community health fairs."

Kelly would like to expand the low-cost testing to adults. Hearing loss is a gradual occurrence, so many adults don't notice it is happening, she said. And they may not have had their hearing tested since they were children.

Detecting a hearing loss can alert adults to begin conserving their hearing, she said, by turning down loud music and wearing ear plugs when operating even common household machinery like a lawn mower.

Once the van arrives, Kelly expects it to serve as a model for other audiology programs. And someday, she said, she'd like to see several testing vans cruising East Bay neighborhoods.

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