Upgrade your grandmother's ear trumpet

While most people put on headphones to tune out, UC Irvine has found a way to help people tune in with the help of an app called the EarTrumpet.

The EarTrumpet assists hearing and tests hearing, determines the problem and adjusts the settings for the individual, according to its iTunes page.

It all started during a lecture in the fall of 2009.

Brian Wong, a facial plastic surgeon and professor of otolaryngology at UCI, invited his colleague at UCI Medical Center Dr. Hamid Djalilian, director of the hearing and balance center, to speak to his class about hearing devices.

"Someone [in the class] must have asked, 'How much are hearing aids?' and he said something like $5,000," Wong said.

The students and Wong were both surprised by the price.

"[Wong] brought up the idea that hearing aids are very expensive and that a new solution needs to be found," Djalilian said. "He asked, "Has anyone used an iPhone as a hearing aid?'"

Wong and Djalilian discovered that the only thing available for iPhones or iPods was an app that amplified sound. Where an amplifier makes all sound loud, Djalilian said, most people with hearing loss only need certain pitches amplified.

They had the idea, now they needed to execute it.

"It sat on our desks for the longest time until a really bright medical student came into my lab," Wong said.

Allen Foulad, 28, decided to give the app a shot.

"At the time, I had some programming experience but I didn't have an iPhone, iPod or even a Mac," Foulad said.

Foulad borrowed an iPod, used the school's mac lab and quickly adapted to the system.

Within months, Foulad created the app.

"It actually analyzes your hearing," he said. "It not only gives you an audiogram but it also puts it in lay terms for the user and analyzes what might be wrong."

Foulad requested a study from the state's Institutional Review Board for approval to start research on people.

The study was approved by the summer and the app was available on iTunes on Aug. 14.

Everyone at UCI Medical Center was very supportive, the three said, especially Dean Dr. Ralph Clayman, who gave the most recent class iPads.

Wong, Djalilian and Foulad are hoping that future students will have the EarTrumpet app downloaded on their iPads and will use them in the student-run health clinics.

"They are using nothing to screen people for hearing loss," Foulad said. "There's no means to do it at the clinic."

He added that it could be useful in free clinics or for doctors in developing countries that lack the technology to properly test hearing. Although most hearing loss is due to environmental factors or age, it can also indicate more severe health issues, such as a tumor.

Hearing aids can run up to $6,000, Djalilian said, and most people don't have the income or aren't covered by their health-care plan. One of Djalilian's patients, a grandmother in her 80s, wasn't able to communicate with her family and couldn't afford hearing aids. He suggested the app.

"For a hundred bucks or whatever, I think it's a reasonable alternative," Wong said. "The real issue here is stigma. Ten years ago you wouldn't be caught dead with a plastic thing in your ear. Now, everyone has a device in their ear."

The EarTrumpet is not intended to replace a visit to the doctor but the inventors hope that it will encourage anyone hesitant about their hearing to get tested and if needed, go to an audiologist.

Right now Foulad and the ear, nose and throat department are studying the EarTrumpet's effectiveness in a clinical study.

The newest update for the EarTrumpet will be available next week. Foulad said the newer version is compatible with iPads and offers a quicker hearing test.

For more information, visit itunes.apple.com.

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