Macquarie University home to WHO collaborating centre

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday
A research centre at Macquarie University in New South Wales (NSW) has been named as a World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centre in Ear and Hearing Health.

The Hearing, Education Application Research (HEAR) Centre sits under the umbrella of the new Macquarie University hearing consilience research centre and was accepted as a member of the WHO Hearing Forum in 2019. In the years since, the centre’s team has ensured the centre met the extensive evaluation and appraisal requirements to be named an official collaborating centre for the next four years.

The HEAR Centre aims to tackle two of the nation’s most under-served hearing health populations by taking a public health approach. Its primary focus will be Indigenous Australians and adults under the age of 65.

The centre has implemented a community-led approach to gather data, design solutions and educate clinicians, with the HEAR team hoping to change the negative impact of hearing loss – both in Australia and around the world.

Improving hearing is an urgent issue

Macquarie University Vice-Chancellor, Professor S Bruce Dowton says that, with approximately 1.5 billion people living with hearing loss, improving hearing healthcare and knowledge is an urgent issue.

“Being named a WHO Collaborating Centre is further recognition of Macquarie University’s role as a global hub for hearing research, education and engagement,” Professor Dowton says.

“Through our research centres, clinics and ongoing industry partnerships, the University aims to make a real difference for people with hearing loss, not only in Australia, but worldwide.”

Professor Catherine McMahon is the HEAR Centre Director and believes that becoming a WHO Collaborating Centre will amplify the team’s research, as well as the impact it can have on influencing hearing policy.

“This gives us the opportunity to work far more closely with government to create meaningful change in hearing health,” she says.

“We have already made a significant contribution to the World Report on Hearing, which calls for all countries to implement ear and hearing care in national health plans, and we hope to continue to contribute in this way.”

HEAR’s current priority projects include the goal to improve hearing health of Aboriginal children and sharing Australia’s newborn hearing screening knowledge with our south-east Asian neighbours. By establishing guidance on hearing-aid profiles, the centre also aims to create greater access to effective, high-quality hearing healthcare systems in low-income communities.

Professor McMahon will travel to Los Angeles this month to meet with WHO officials to finalise the centre’s work plan for the next four years.

Mentored and motivated

Professor McMahon’s academic pathway began when she completed a Bachelor of Science with Honors – a degree she started at Melbourne’s Monash University and finished at the University of Western Australia (UWA).

“I was then inspired by this incredible researcher who was inspiring as a lecturer – Dr Rob Patuzzi – and drew me into the field of auditory physiology,” she told The Bursar.

Under his supervision, Professor McMahon gained a deeper understanding of how the ear works and what happens when things go wrong (like tinnitus and auditory neuropathy).

“I balanced this with becoming a clinical audiologist and also had leaders in the field who were my lecturers – including Prof Richard Dowell and with guest lectures from Prof Graeme Clarke, who developed the multichannel cochlear implant (now famous as the globally leading Australian organisation Cochlear Ltd),” she says.

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For young people considering a professional life in hearing healthcare, Professor McMahon says there are myriad opportunities to explore.

“We are at the tip of the iceberg in recognising the importance of public health approaches to addressing ear disease and hearing care – important globally and in Australia,” she says.

Citing vision pioneer Fred Hollows as an example of what continues to be achieved in the field because of one man’s mission to end avoidable blindness, Professor McMahon points to the power of community-based approaches.

“We need to take a similar approach to end avoidable hearing loss and reduce the impacts of hearing loss on life outcomes,” she told The Bursar. “About one in 10 children from lower socio-economic settings experience middle ear disease. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, we know that ear disease occurs more frequently, lasts longer, and is more severe than in non-Indigenous children.”

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Hearing health impacts learning

And with middle ear disease and hearing loss affecting listening, learning, language and literacy skills, Professor McMahon says the ability to assess kids in their community and school settings will expand access and enable earlier detection and treatment.

By becoming a WHO Collaborating Centre, Professor McMahon says the team at the centre look forward to playing an important part in making a positive difference to hearing health outcomes.

“We have the chance to work with other WHO Collaborating Centres in ear and hearing health globally to make a real impact in addressing ear disease and hearing loss.”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]