THURSDAY, Aug. 18, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Screening newborns for hearing impairment improved early detection by 43 percent, British researchers report.
The finding "is the strongest available evidence of the added benefit of universal newborn screening in the early detection of permanent childhood hearing impairment," concludes the report published in the August 20 issue of The Lancet by pediatric neurologists at Southampton General Hospital.
The research team followed 66 children, all of whom experienced some form of hearing problem. Some had been tested for hearing impairment just after birth, while others were given a more general test at 7 to 8 months of age.
The researchers found that 23 of the 31 (74 percent) children given the hearing test soon after birth were referred for treatment before 6 months of age, compared to just 11 of the 35 (31 percent) who did not receive the neonatal screen.
According to the researchers, the next phase of their research focuses on whether early treatment actually made a difference in the children's development. The doctors are assessing the effect of early treatment on the children's speech and language, and on the families' health costs.
The study gives "more long-term data that [newborn] screening is effective," said Dr. Joseph Haddad, Jr., director of pediatric otolaryngology and head and neck surgery at Columbia University Medical Center in New York.
Most U.S. states -- 32 of the 50 -- have universal hearing screening programs for newborns in place, Haddad said. "They have been around long enough so that most physicians feel that early identification of newborns with hearing problems may be helpful in going forward," he said. "I'm sure it helps in early development."
One problem is the anxiety that parents experience when told that a newborn baby has a hearing problem, Haddad said. "But my personal experience with parents is that while there is some real anxiety, parents see the benefits outweighing the anxiety," he said.
Haddad noted that, in spite of early detection, there were some delays in providing treatment -- most notably, hearing aids -- to the children with problems. "But that may be specific to the British health care system," he said.
In his practice, "we haven't had any major difficulties, once a problem was identified, in convincing parents that the children should have hearing aids," Haddad said.
The British study is "good news," said Pamela Mason, director of audiology professional practices at the American Speech-Language Hearing Association, because it provides solid evidence on what has been a contentious subject in this country.
In 2001, Mason recalled, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force of the Health and Human Services Agency declared there was insufficient evidence that early detection and intervention in hearing problems would produce clinical improvements -- an assessment disputed by her group and others.
"I'm glad that now there is some highly evidence-based research coming out to support what we had known in our hearts," she said.
Over 90 percent of hospitals in the United States now do hearing tests on newborn babies before they leave the hospital, Mason pointed out.
"Now our next task is to make sure all children identified in screening programs get a clinical assessment by 3 months of age and are placed in an intervention program," she said.
For more on pediatric hearing loss, head to the American Speech-Language Hearing Association.