The Tyrolean hearing implant manufacturer MED-EL Medical Electronics supports institutions in Bangladesh and the Ivory Coast in developing a wide range of products in the field of hearing health. The Austrian Development Agency is funding the project.
“Beethoven could hear today,” said Ingeborg Hochmair, founder and CEO of MED-EL, at the award ceremony in Vienna in mid-September. The award, initiated by a wide range of sponsors, is awarded annually to Austrian companies that can demonstrate a high level of social responsibility. MED-EL scored particularly well with its activities in Bangladesh and the Ivory Coast. The Tyrolean family company has been pushing ahead with new high-tech solutions for all types and degrees of hearing loss since it was founded. Its core product are cochlear implants: hearing prostheses that bypass the non-functioning part of the inner ear and enable the brain to hear by means of electrical sound signals.
With more than four hundred million hearing impaired people, including more than 30 million children, the World Health Organization reports a tremendous need for hearing solutions. Cochlear implants are only considered for the tip of the iceberg, as Sales Manager Stephanie Unterrieder explains: “Most hearing-impaired people receive help through specialist knowledge and measures such as hearing aids or surgery. Only 4,5 out of 10.000 affected children are potential candidates for a cochlear implant. And for them this means a chance for an autonomous life. ”Today, MED-EL is present in all industrialized countries as well as in emerging countries such as India, Indonesia, South Africa and Mexico. In addition, the innovation leader offers its products via international networks in many other countries, including developing countries. “Our goal is to overcome hearing loss as a barrier to communication and quality of life,” says Regional Manager Christian Steppan, describing the company's vision.
With the ADA as a partner in poor countries
So motivated, MED-EL recently put an increased focus on developing countries. In the course of a feasibility study that the company supported with a Austrian Development Agency ADA conducted in the Philippines, weak health systems, insufficiently trained professionals and a lack of training infrastructure were identified as key barriers to the development of a wider range of medical services for people with hearing impairments. There is no local prevention or aftercare - both are necessary to detect deafness as early as possible and to promote the language development of affected children.
Managing Director Ingeborg Hochmair considered participating in the development of a hearing sector in developing countries “by providing specialist knowledge beyond the core business”, even if this would not be directly profitable for the company. Bangladesh and Ivory Coast, where cochlear implants had already been performed, were shortlisted: in Bangladesh in 2006 and in Ivory Coast in 2015 under the guidance of regional and international experts. Nothing stood in the way of the project when ADA promised funding as part of a business partnership at the beginning of 2018. “Health is an important concern. That is why we support Austrian companies that are committed to improving health care in developing countries, ”says ADA Managing Director Martin Ledolter, justifying the cooperation.
Create new hearing markets in developing countries
Within a few months, all players in the hearing sector in both countries were contacted: professional associations, training institutes and health NGOs as well as ENT doctors, audiologists and speech therapists. The aim was to win them over to the further development of the sector through a multidisciplinary approach and to clarify responsibilities. Unterrieder and Steppan emphasize that the success of the project ultimately depends on whether the local stakeholders share the issue and independently drive the measures, while MED-EL can only support as an industry and project partner. In this phase, MED-EL itself also built on the expertise of the Austrian development organization ICEP. At the kick-off, which took place in both countries at the beginning of 2019 - in Bangladesh in the presence of then Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl - further steps were taken. The participants defined initial strategies for sensitizing the population and politicians to the problem of hearing loss and possible solutions. They also clarified the next steps to cover the need for training and cooperation in order to improve the so-called “listening journey” for patients on site from diagnosis to rehabilitation. To this end, ways were shown to increase the diagnostic capacities and to involve the health insurance companies in treatment costs.
Getting great results
A lot has happened since then, despite corona-related delays. Unterrieder and Steppan report on the establishment of a bachelor's program in audiology and speech therapy with a blended learning concept in Bangladesh and its start with 40 students - a milestone in the hearing sector. An equally important step forward is the universally accessible introduction of a newborn hearing screening program in Ivory Coast, unique in all of Africa, which will also greatly improve the country's data situation in this area. In addition, low-threshold education and training programs for parents, the general public and specialist staff are being established in both countries. There is encouragement from all sides. MED-EL is therefore already preparing to build on the experiences and on the basis of what has been achieved to set up regional expert hubs in East and West Africa as well as in South Asia in order to develop hearing sectors from there. A strategic partnership with ADA should make this possible.
Solution provider for hearing lossMED-EL Medical Electronics was founded in 1990 by Ingeborg and Erwin Hochmair in Innsbruck, after their research at the Vienna University of Technology had led to the development of the first microelectronic, multi-channel cochlear implant. Today, MED-EL employs more than 2.200 people from 75 nations in 33 branches and is the innovation leader with the largest range of products for the treatment of all types of hearing loss - cochlear and middle ear implant systems, a system for electrical-acoustic stimulation, brain stem implants and implantable and non-surgical bone conduction devices. People in 123 countries hear thanks to a MED-EL product.
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