Tinnitus Relief at Home: The Oto Health Story
What motivated us to build Oto—the new app for tinnitus that combines CBT, mindfulness therapy, and relaxation therapy.
27 July 2020
Last year, I was sitting in a London pub with my friend—and fellow doctor—George Leidig. We were going over some interesting patient cases from the previous week. George told me about a man in his early thirties who had recently been diagnosed with tinnitus and hearing loss. The tinnitus in particular was preventing him from sleeping and was starting to severely impact his mental health.
At that time, neither of us had any experience in otolaryngology (ear, nose, and throat medicine) or audiology (hearing science), and therefore knew little more than the snippets of knowledge we’d picked from medical school. The conversation marked the beginning of our journey into building an audiology startup from scratch. I’m going to describe what inspired us to build Oto, and how we hope to be able to improve tinnitus self-management for millions of people around the world.
An invisible problem
George and I learned a little about tinnitus at medical school, but mostly in the context of underlying ear-related medical conditions. Neither of us had ever considered the extent of the problem (over 10% of the UK population have tinnitus) or the huge impact tinnitus can have on people’s lives. We knew there wasn’t cure, but assumed effective treatment would have been widely available.
Over the following weeks, we spent some time researching the issue. I reached out to the UK charity Action on Hearing loss, who helped arrange some meetings with people with tinnitus and hearing loss. I had never realised the extent of the isolation that these conditions can cause, and I was shocked. We’d never covered this at medical school. One thing that I found particularly frustrating was that these invisible conditions just don’t seem to be taken as seriously.
It was when we started to research the available treatment options that we realised we had an opportunity to improve the current offering for tinnitus management. The support available for tinnitus treatment has not kept up with recent advances in technology. For other conditions (such as diabetes or cancer), now more than ever, people are able to access help and support at a time that suits them, using only their smartphone. We felt that people with tinnitus deserved better, and thus Oto Health was born.
The current solution for tinnitus
In my previous article, I described a common scenario for the treatment journey in tinnitus. Let’s take it one step further – what happens next? You’ve had some treatment with a therapist and now you’ve found some other treatments that show promise. You feel more confident that you can start to manage your tinnitus but only with some more help.
As I outlined in my previous article, there are in fact 3 treatments that the science suggests are the most effective:
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
Despite recent innovations in tinnitus self-treatment, there is currently no app that delivers all three of these treatments to tinnitus sufferers at the same time. And many apps aren’t custom-tailored to help manage tinnitus. Long periods of silence in mindfulness apps make them difficult for those with tinnitus, and meditation exercises are more effective when they are made with tinnitus in mind.
The digital health revolution
Recent advances in technology have allowed for improved access to treatment and better understanding of health conditions for patients. Wearable tech has allowed for a far better insight into our own health and the impact that we can have on it (think Apple HealthKit). Significant progress has been made in consumer artificial intelligence technology. Over the last decade, we’ve seen an influx of AI and ML in everything from mobile phones to computing and home devices such as Amazon Alexa.
Right from the outset, George and I aimed to harness the power of this technology to create a product that could be used by people with tinnitus and hearing loss to help better manage their conditions. We knew that we’d need a lot of help, so began to assemble a team of ENT specialists, hearing therapists, audiologists, data scientists, and academics. We now have a huge amount of collective experience in helping those with tinnitus, and we’re condensing this experience into creating what we hope will be a revolutionary product.
What is Oto?
Oto is a mobile app that combines digital therapies for tinnitus with AI-driven hearing-health tracking. It will be available on iPhone and Android and is currently in the early phases of development.
The first problem we want to tackle is availability of treatment and information for people with tinnitus. Oto provides tinnitus therapy in the form of a progressive programme of CBT, mindfulness, and education. We want to equip people with the skills needed to take complete control of their condition.
How will it work?
Hearing health tracking
One of the most important things with a condition like tinnitus is to draw links between what makes it better, and what makes it worse. You’ll start by learning about tinnitus and how it affects you. Oto uses a hearing health log—which will prompt you to answer a few questions about how your tinnitus, hearing, mood and sleep have been over the past 24 hours. You’ll be given a score for tinnitus and hearing—which will be derived from your log, and help you easily keep track of how each condition is changing.
By building up a picture about how these things interact, we’ll allow you to fully understand the impact tinnitus has on your life, and of your life on your tinnitus.
Each day, you’ll be prompted to complete a short therapy session. You’ll start with an introduction to different types of treatments—the core of which will be CBT, mindfulness, and relaxation therapy. The exercises will gradually grow in complexity as you develop and start to incorporate them into daily life. Oto will monitor your improvement and make suggestions to improve the way you cope with your tinnitus as a whole.
In summary—here’s what we hope Oto will improve for people with tinnitus.
1. Oto will allow anyone to access tinnitus therapy that works, from the comfort of their own home, for a fraction of the cost of private therapy. No more long waiting lists, no more driving to appointments.
2. Oto harnesses the power of AI to give you in-depth insights into your tinnitus and hearing health in general, with quick and simple tracking.
When will Oto be released?
The public beta is going to be released in August. This will include the hearing health tracking features and the introductory tinnitus module. We’re looking for pre-release testers to provide early feedback on the beta version, and we’d love to hear your thoughts.