Background: School-based programmes, including hearing screening, provide essential preventive services for rural children. However, minimal evidence on screening methodologies, loss to follow-up, and scarcity of specialists for subsequent care compound rural health disparities. We hypothesised telemedicine specialty referral would improve time to follow-up for school hearing screening compared with standard primary care referral. Methods: In this cluster-randomised controlled trial conducted in 15 rural Alaskan communities, USA, we randomised communities to telemedicine specialty referral (intervention) or standard primary care referral (control) for school hearing screening. All children (K–12; aged 4–21 years) enrolled in Bering Straight School District were eligible. Community randomisation occurred within four strata using location and school size. Participants were masked to group allocation until screening day, and assessors were masked throughout data collection. Screening occurred annually, and children who screened positive for possible hearing loss or ear disease were monitored for 9 months from the screening date for follow-up. Primary outcome was the time to follow-up after a positive hearing screen; analysis was by intention to treat. The trial was registered with ClinicalTrials.gov, NCT03309553. Findings: We recruited participants between Oct 10, 2017, and March 28, 2019. 15 communities were randomised: eight (750 children) to telemedicine referral and seven (731 children) to primary care referral. 790 (53·3%) of 1481 children screened positive in at least one study year: 391 (52∤1%) in the telemedicine referral communities and 399 (50∤4%) in the primary care referral communities. Of children referred, 268 (68·5%) in the telemedicine referral communities and 128 (32·1%) in primary care referral communities received follow-up within 9 months. Among children who received follow-up, mean time to follow-up was 41·5 days (SD 55·7) in the telemedicine referral communities and 92·0 days (75·8) in the primary care referral communities (adjusted event-time ratio 17·6 [95% CI 6·8–45·3] for all referred children). There were no adverse events. Interpretation: Telemedicine specialty referral significantly improved the time to follow-up after hearing screening in Alaska. Telemedicine might apply to other preventive school-based services to improve access to specialty care for rural children. Funding: Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute.
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