To describe and analyse in detail current practice of school entry hearing screening (SES) in the UK.
Main electronic databases were searched up to May 2005.
A national postal questionnaire survey was addressed to all leads for SES in the UK, considering current practice in terms of implementation, protocols, target population and performance data. Primary data from cohort studies in one area of London were examined. A systematic review of alternative SES tests, test performance and impact on outcomes was carried out. Finally, a review of published studies on costs, plus economic modelling of current and alternative programmes was prepared.
The survey suggested that SES is used in most of England, Wales and Scotland; just over 10% of respondents have abandoned the screen; others are awaiting national guidance. Coverage of SES is variable, but is often over 90% for children in state schools. Referral rates are variable, with a median of about 8%. The test used for the screen is the pure tone sweep test but with wide variation in implementation, with differing frequencies, pass criteria and retest protocols; written examples of protocols were often poor and ambiguous. There is no national approach to data collection, audit and quality assurance, and there are variable approaches at local level. The screen is performed in less than ideal test conditions and resources are often limited, which has an impact on the quality of the screen. The primary cohort studies show that the prevalence of permanent childhood hearing loss continues to increase through infancy. Of the 3.47 in 1000 children with a permanent hearing loss at school screen age, 1.89 in 1000 required identification after the newborn screen. Newborn hearing screening is likely to reduce significantly the yield of SES for permanent bilateral and unilateral hearing impairments; yield had fallen from about 1.11 in 1000 before newborn screening to about 0.34 in 1000 for cohorts that had had newborn screening, of which only 0.07 in 1000 were unilateral impairments. Just under 20% of permanent moderate or greater bilateral, mild bilateral and unilateral impairments, known to services as 6-year-olds or older, remained to be identified around the time of school entry. No good-quality published comparative trials of alternative screens or tests for SES were identified and studies concerned with the relative accuracy of alternative tests are difficult to compare and often flawed by differing referral criteria and case definitions; with full pure tone audiometry as the reference test, the pure tone sweep test appears to have high sensitivity and high specificity for minimal, mild and greater hearing impairments, better than alternative tests for which evidence was identified. There is insufficient evidence regarding possible harm of the screen. There were no published studies identified that examined the possible effects of SES on longer term outcomes. No good-quality published economic evaluations of SES were identified and a universal SES based on pure tone sweep tests was associated with higher costs and slightly higher quality-adjusted life-years (QALYs) compared with no screen and other screen alternatives; the incremental cost-effectiveness ratio for such a screen is around 2500 pounds per QALY gained; the range of expected costs, QALYs and net benefits was broad, indicating a considerable degree of uncertainty. Targeted screening could be more cost-effective than universal school entry screening; however, the lack of primary data and the wide limits for variables in the modelling mean that any conclusions must be considered indicative and exploratory only. A national screening programme for permanent hearing impairment at school entry meets all but three of the criteria for a screening programme, but at least six criteria are not met for screening for temporary hearing impairment.
The lack of good-quality evidence in this area remains a serious problem. Services should improve quality and audit screen performance for identification of previously unknown permanent hearing impairment, pending evidence-based policy decisions based on the research recommendations. Further research is needed into a number of important areas including the evaluation of an agreed national protocol for services delivering SES to make future studies and audits of screen performance more directly comparable.