Using a smartphone to sound out sign of kids’ ear infections

Maricruz Casares
May 18, 2019

That's something a team of researchers from the University of Washington have been working to develop.

Ear infections are one of the first health problems people tend to experience.

The American Academy of Family Physicians has more on ear infections. If it finds no sign of fluid, "then you can be pretty confident the fever or whatever is probably not related to an ear infection", he explained. So the authors behind this study, published Wednesday in Science Translational Medicine, wanted to create an easier-to-use, low-priced test that could rival that accuracy. It involved about 50 children that their ears checked with the app. Aim the funnel at the ear canal to focus sound. Finally, the app, based on fluctuations in the signal it receives, predicts the odds of fluid in the ear.

"And if you tap on the wine glass, you're going to get a different sound depending on the level of liquid in the wine glass". "So it's the same principle here". About half of the children were scheduled to undergo surgery for ear tube placement, a common surgery for patients with chronic or recurrent incidents of ear fluid. The study's design was meant to be a foolproof test of the app's accuracy. A deeper pitch indicates that the middle ear is filled with pus or fluid, suggesting that it may be infected. That's the best way to tell if there is fluid behind the eardrum. The machine learning algorithm successfully predicted the likelihood of fluid presence 85 percent of the time.

Though an ear infection can hurt and make it hard to hear, sometimes there are no symptoms and diagnosis can be difficult. All five ears that contained fluid were detected, and 9 of the 10 healthy ears were correctly identified.

Lastly, in another experiment, Chan's team had parents try to use the app on 25 ears, following a brief tutorial.

It did so with high accuracy in new research.

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That suggests parents won't have much trouble using the app outside of a medical setting. But can those all-powerful phones play doctor, too?

"The chirps are actually quite soft".

Authors note that numerous children responded to the chirps by smiling or laughing. "It turns out the chirps have a calming effect", said Chan. That would let their children either avoid an unneeded trip to the doctor, or get the followup care they might need.

"What is really unique about this study is that we used the gold standard for diagnosing ear infections", said co-first author Dr. Sharat Raju, a surgical resident.

"Even in developing countries, smartphones are becoming common". They tested each child with the app immediately before surgery, giving them the flawless opportunity to see the app's accuracy.

The researchers are now pursuing FDA approval for the tool, and have launched Edus Health, a spinout company, to manage the app's commercialization.

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