Free hearing screening for all newborn babies

Every newborn baby in Kilkenny will have the opportunity for a free hearing test thanks to an initiative brought in at St Luke’s Hospital last week.

Every newborn baby in Kilkenny will have the opportunity for a free hearing test thanks to an initiative brought in at St Luke’s Hospital last week.

This “Newborn Hearing Screening Programme,” which officially started last Wednesday, means that all babies born in St Luke’s and those born at home will be offered a hearing screening test before being discharged from the hospital.

And while it won’t reduce the numbers of children (6,412) and adults (7,181) waiting for a hearing test nationwide, as reported in national media last week, it will help to prevent future backlogs, according to the Health Service Executive (HSE).

The bedside service is delivered in the hospital and is being carried out by UK company Northgate Information Solutions, which has implemented it at 300 sites in the UK.

It involves two tests and is a screening test rather than diagnostic, so an “unclear” result doesn’t necessarily mean there has been hearing loss.

A baby who receives an “unclear” result will be given an appointment at the Regional Diagnostic Audiology Clinic in Waterford Regional Hospital within one month, explained Dr Mary Francis, senior medical officer for Carlow-Kilkenny.

Babies with a family history will be given an appointment for diagnostic testing within eight months, as will those who are treated in the intensive care unit.

Parents will also be given information about the sounds a baby should producing and should be aware of in the first year of life, she said.

The service was rolled out in Cork University Hospital in April 2010, and then in Wexford, Waterford and Kerry in November, followed by St Luke’s and Clonmel last week.

“It’s great. You don’t have to worry about it – it’s one test out of the way. It’s peace of mind over the next couple of months as well,” said Carmel Fitzgibbon of Thurles, whose day-old son Ryan was one of the first to benefit from the service.

And whereas the average age of diagnosis of a permanent hearing impairment in children is three to three and a half years old, where programmes such as this are in place, that drops to two months old for 90% of children, Dr Francis said.

“Hearing loss is quite a hidden disability and can be difficult to diagnose,” she said, but early identification leads to “better outcomes in terms of speech and language, social interaction and later education attainment.”

By the end of the year, 19,000 babies will have been screened in the HSE South area, she said. “It is important because permanent childhood hearing loss affects one to two out of every 1,000 children.”