Just breathe: Doctors using phones to detect lung disease

Photo courtesy of the University of Washington

SEATTLE -- In developing countries -- and even rural America -- many people have limited access to medical diagnostic equipment, such as a spirometer that could detect lung disease. But it seems everyone has a phone in their pocket.

That's the premise behind SpiroCall, a system that lets a doctor check the health of a patient's lungs over the phone, there's no need to visit a clinic.

"SpiroCall is a system that uses the microphone on any kind of phone to try and figure out how much air is coming out of your month as you exhale as hard as you can," said Elliott Saba, a University of Washington electrical engineering doctoral student and co-developer of SpiroCall.

The strength of breath is critical information for pulmonary doctors to properly diagnosis conditions like Asthma and diseases like cystic fibrosis. Typically, doctors rely on a spirometer, calibrated to measure the airflow of someone who breaths into it.

"This is essentially an uncalibrated version of the spirometer," said Saba. "So we have to do some extra math and signal processing on server to get the same flow rate that a phone would get from the sound it picks up."

Researchers at the UW Ubiquity Lab, where they focus on devices people already have, developed SpiroCall over the last three years. There's no app to download, you don't need a smartphone or a computer. You just need any phone.

Users call a toll free 800 number and, when prompted, essentially huff as strong as they can toward the phone extended two feet away.

Doctors can see the results on a computer in the room and half way around the world within seconds. A voice prompt also tells the use the results for logging purposes.

"We want to democratize this, so anyone can use the phone they already own to do the same kind of testing as using a spirometer," said Saba.

In a paper presented at the Association for Computing Machinery's CHI 2016 conference, researchers claimed that SpiroCall came within 6.2 percent of results from clinical spirometers used in hospitals. That means it meets industry standards for accuracy, says Saba.

The team has collected data from more than 4,000 patients who have visited clinics in Seattle and Tacoma, as well as in India and Bangladesh. The patients were measured with both the SpiroCall system and a commercial spirometer.

Saba and his team hope that comparative data will improved their chance of getting FDA approval.

The research was funded by the Life Sciences Discovery Fund, the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation and the University of Washington.

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