A community-based ear health training initiative is empowering on the ground health services in the Tiwi Islands.

Menzies School of Health Research has celebrated the first seven graduates of its Hearing for Learning Initiative, who will go on to provide local knowledge and expertise when checking the ears and hearing of children in their community.

The six-week course at Wurrumiyanga provided graduates with enhanced skills in detecting ear and hearing problems through a Certificate II in Aboriginal Primary Health Care.

Graduate Aileen Tiparui said she was inspired to do the training in order to help the young people in her community take care of their hearing.

“I wanted to learn more about hearing and to get more skills and to know more about hearing problems for our kids, especially the young ones,” Tiparui said.

“I learned new skills and how to look after ears, such as how to use an otoscope to look into ears.”

In time, the graduates will gain opportunities to work in clinics as ear health facilitators, as well as alongside health professionals, families and schools.

The initiative places prevention front and centre through the early detection of ear issues in young children.

Ear health is an increasing problem in the Northern Territory, with up to nine in ten Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children under the age of three suffering from hearing issues.

They most commonly suffer from some type of otitis media: either ‘glue ear’, ‘bulging ear drums’ or ‘runny ears’ in one or both ears. Left untreated, these conditions can have lifelong impacts on a child.

Menzies’ Professor Amanda Leach said the program aimed to increase early detection of otitis media through the training of local community members.

“This will decrease the need for fly-in fly-out specialists, reduce the treatment waiting period and create employment opportunities for up to 40 community-based workers in the NT,” Professor Leach said.

“It is important, now more than ever given the COVID-19 pandemic, to have local health practitioners who can provide essential services to their community.”

“These new graduates will be able to work with their community to help identify ear health concerns and treatments early, to reduce the risk of long-term ear disease and associated hearing loss.”

The initiative is a stepped-wedge trial that aims to roll out on Country training and employment across 20 Northern Territory communities over the next three years.

Professor Leach said the concept is to make the training accessible by taking it directly to communities. The trainees are paid a casual and hourly wage, and have enough time in their days to meet other obligations.

The education and employment also aim to be culturally appropriate and keep the power in community hands. Professor Leach said in the initial phase, steps are taken to ensure the community has decision-making powers in how the project is run.

“We go out and talk to residents—health practitioners, teachers, principals, women’s groups—and try and get a feel for how they want the project to be run. Even for things like where the training is held,” she said.

“In the end, they’re going to have one or two members of their community become an expert in this field, so it’s up to them.”

The project is funded by Menzies’ lead philanthropic supporter the Balnaves Foundation, and the Australian and Northern Territory Governments.

Plans to roll the initiative out nationally are in the works.

“When people hear about what we’re doing, it’s almost like the penny drops. We’re very fortunate to have the funding from our partners to be able to do this trial, so we can measure everything carefully,” Professor Leach said.

“We won’t just deliver a report that tells people it seems like a good thing, we can actually show them how good it is.”

By Imogen Kars