Field Sensitivity of Targeted Neonatal Hearing Screening using the Nottingham ABR Screener

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A population of children having bilateral moderate to profound hearing impairment was investigated to find out the number who passed (false negatives) and who failed (true positives) a screening test based on the auditory brain stem response (ABR).


This study of the ABR is a parallel report to Lutman, Davis, Fortnum, and Wood (1997), where the transient evoked otoacoustic emission was examined on a similar but not identical population of at-risk neonates. Hearing screening was undertaken in at-risk neonates (targeted screening) at seven hospitals in the UK using the Nottingham ABR Screener. During the period from January 1988 to December 1993, a total of 6983 neonates had been tested. Assessment of audiological records from the participating centers ascertained that 201 children born between January 1988 and December 1993 had hearing threshold levels in both ears of 50 dB or more, averaged over the speech frequencies 0.5, 1, 2, and 4 kHz. Of these, 51 had completed the ABR screening test. Examination of the ABR records, which included both machine and visual scoring, indicated whether they had passed or failed the screening test.


Forty-six of the 51 hearing impaired babies failed the neonatal ABR screen either on one or both ears (five false negatives), and 42 failed the test on both ears (nine false negatives). This resulted in field sensitivities of 90% and 82%, respectively. Two cases of suspected progressive hearing loss have been included in the numbers of false negative results. The percentage of babies passing the screen on both ears and subsequently having normal hearing(specificity) is typically 93%.


Neonatal hearing screening in an at-risk population using a highly automated ABR test is a viable and effective tool for identification of hearing impairment. Although the field sensitivity of the test is high, it is unable to identify all babies with a criterion level of hearing loss. There are a number of possible explanations as to the origin of false negative results: configuration of the pure-tone audiogram, a progressive hearing loss, acquired sensorineural or conductive loss, retrocochlear deafness, or an incorrect interpretation of the screening test. Passing a neonatal screening test, therefore, does not exclude the possibility of subsequent hearing impairment and highlights the need for further surveillance.

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