In 2014, Carrie Nieman, an otolaryngology-head and neck surgery resident at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, started a nonprofit to provide affordable amplification devices to low-income older adults, then train those adults how to use the aids. The nonprofit, Access HEARS, drew on research Nieman and her team conducted at Hopkins — but she was wary of an important statistic: it takes an average of 17 years to bring medical innovations to market, according to the Institute of Medicine.
“How can we impact more people, faster?” Nieman asked.
With support from Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures’ Social Innovation Lab, Nieman co-founded Access HEARS with her mentor, associate professor of otolaryngology Frank Lin, and Kunal Parikh, PhD (Engr ’17), and began putting her research into practice. Initial results from a pilot study showed participants had lower levels of hearing handicap and satisfaction levels comparable to individuals using regular hearing aids.
What has Access HEARS been up to since? Rising caught up with Nieman to find out.
Your initial work was with residents in one of Baltimore’s Weinberg Senior Living facilities. How has Access HEARS expanded since then?
We’ve worked with more than 160 people in various shapes and forms through our outreach efforts in the community, including hearing screenings and device fittings. These efforts have been led by our new executive director, Khoi Le, who brings tremendous experience training older adults on new technologies along with marketing, sales, and management experience. This spring, we were also accepted into the Aging 2.0 Baltimore Accelerator, which brought together companies and nonprofits creating innovative solutions for aging populations in our area. Through the accelerator, we were able to participate in focus groups around the Baltimore area to refine our services and strategies. We gained critical feedback on how we market our services, consumer expectations related to the technologies we use, and the type of support users need. And a big push for us right now is a partnership with Catholic Charities in the Baltimore area. We go to their independent living facilities for older adults and offer our services to the residents — we’ve done this at some smaller senior centers, too.
Has this early success attracted additional funding to support both your research and your nonprofit’s growth?
To support our team’s research, we received a grant from the NIH to work with participants from the first HEARS pilot study who were interested in becoming trainers. Six volunteered and five completed our training curriculum and can now provide support to others with hearing loss using a community health worker model. This is laying the groundwork for a larger trial that will take place in multiple sites across Baltimore City. For the nonprofit, Access HEARS is supported by the AARP Foundation and we also received a grant from the David and Barbara B. Hirschhorn Foundation to support the development of multiple models of providing hearing care in Baltimore. The grant support has allowed us to bring on our executive director, and we are currently recruiting a full-time trainer to help deliver services throughout the community.
How are the “research” and “nonprofit” sides of your work different, but related?
On the research side, we are developing and evaluating which methods and approaches work in improving hearing in these older adults — going through the rigorous, important steps of academic medical research. The nonprofit side helps us think through how these methods and approaches work in a non-research setting. When people aren’t receiving a free device because they’re participating in a study, how do we present our services and explain how we can help them? What ways do people want to receive this information? How can we make our model sustainable and scalable? The research side and the nonprofit side work together with the ultimate goal of understanding how we can bring hearing care to more older adults and do so in ways that are meaningful and impactful.
Why is Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures, specifically the Social Innovation Lab, so important to emerging social entrepreneurs like you?
The tools and strategies I learned through the Social Innovation Lab are the foundation for everything we do at Access HEARS, guiding us to think about what really matters to our market, and how we can satisfy those needs faster. I’m on the Social Innovation Lab’s advisory board now, and it’s been exciting to see the new teams coming through who have wonderful ideas and energy. Being part of that on an ongoing basis is important to me because I’m still learning how to be a social entrepreneur, so they help me as much as I help them. Baltimore and Hopkins have a concentration of incredibly talented people, and the Social Innovation Lab creates a synergy bringing the community and the university together.