Professor Marlene Bagatto has researched hearing among children for years and understands the pressing need for an infant hearing health-care program in Canada. Now, she is adding advocacy to her work as a health-care researcher, beginning a study which will examine the impact of health inequities on children.
A professor in Western’s School of Communication Sciences and Disorders in the Faculty of Health Sciences and chair of the Canadian Infant Hearing Task Force (CIHTF), Bagatto is concerned about the findings in the 2019 Canadian Early Hearing Detection and Intervention (EHDI) Report Card.
The Report Card mentioned that only seven of 13 provinces and territories have infant hearing health programs. The absence of a nationwide strategy puts children with lasting hearing loss at risk for developmental, educational, social and cognitive delays.
Without an infant hearing health-care program, most children with hearing loss are not identified until age two or three which is past the critical period for learning spoken language. In this case, more intensive resources from the health-care system are needed than if the loss had been caught early on.
“Knowing what your baby’s hearing status is at birth is critical. We all need to know if our senses are working. Hearing gives us access to spoken language and language, whether spoken or signed, is required for social interaction, access to education and cognitive development. There is much at stake,” said Bagatto.
Bagatto and her research team are now exploring what other data can be gathered and how it can be used to inform policy that will proactively address inequities in hearing health in all regions in Canada.
“I am motivated to add a new path to my research career — advocating for all children in Canada to have access to hearing health care while I stay invested in the protocols and how to provide the best infant hearing health care,” said Bagatto, who leads the Pediatric Audiology Strategies and Systems Laboratory.
Recipient of the 2023 American Academy of Audiology’s Marion Downs Pediatric Audiology Award, Bagatto’s first steps in adding advocacy work to her program of research will be taken as a recipient of the inaugural Canadian Hearing Services Global Partnerships for Research & Innovation Grant. The grant will fund a study to map the social determinants of infant hearing health care in Canada, identify the reasons for regional deficiencies and determine the cost to Canadians when infant hearing issues go unidentified.
In collaboration with Health Ethics, Law, & Policy (HELP) Lab professors Maxwell Smith and Jacob Shelley, and Ivey Business School professor Mehmet Begen, the two-year study will include health equity impact assessments with formalized strategies to help identify the specific inequities for children without access to hearing screening at birth and a cost –effectiveness analysis.
Post-study knowledge mobilization activities will be critical to encouraging change, according to Bagatto. Results will be shared with provincial and territorial health systems to guide practice and policy implementation, with the goal of reducing and eventually eliminating current barriers faced by infants with hearing loss.
“I’m happy that the research is growing beyond being able to test an infant’s hearing and knowing what to do when an issue is identified, to ensuring that every baby in Canada has access to that innovation,” said Bagatto. “We have an obligation to give children the best possible start in life and knowing the baby’s hearing status gives them the chance to learn and grow without barriers.”