MAY 24, 2019 9:17 PM PDT

Easy detection of ear infection in kids using a smartphone app

WRITTEN BY: Nupur Srivastava

Acute Otitis Media (AOM) an ear infection is prevalent in kids. The main symptoms are middle ear inflammation, pain, irritability, or fever. The viral upper respiratory infection leads to the dysfunction of the eustachian tube, a passgae that connects throat to the middle ear. It then promotes increased negative pressure in the middle ear and improper ventilation. When left unattended, it can cause hearing loss too. The diagnosis involves a frequent visit to the pediatricians or general physicians who detect the infection using an otoscope. Justin Chan, a research student at the Paul G. Allen School for Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington, says that the method of detecting the ear infection using an otoscope is only 50% reliable.

"For an accurate and easy evaluation, a smartphone app that can detect ear infection in kids is efficient and reliable," says Chan, a lead author on a new study published in Science Translational Medicine. The research team says parents can do a quick screening and diagnose the ear infection at home, too, and it will help avoid patients visiting specialists.

"Designing an accurate screening tool on something as ubiquitous as a smartphone can be game-changing for parents as well as health care providers in resource-limited regions," said Shyam Gollakota, co-author of the study and Associate Professor in the UW's Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. "A key advantage of our technology is that it does not require any additional hardware other than a piece of paper and a software app running on the smartphone." In one of the interviews, Dr. Chan says that this app is not yet available in app stores, but at the end of the year, they are going to get the approval from the FDA.

For the system to work, the researchers use a simple paper funnel that channels the sound waves reflected through the microphones and speakers of the smartphones. The app sends the chirp-like sounds through the phone's speaker to the patient's ear. After bouncing off from the eardrum, the sound waves reflect back to the phone's microphone. The app then detects the waves, record the sound vibrations, and scans the results. The more intense the sound, the more fluid is in the middle ear. These differences in the frequency of sound between healthy and infected ear get detected by the app and can help diagnose the ear infection.

The study was carried out in 98 patient ears at a pediatric surgical center. The researchers analyzed the system in two different groups of patients. The first group comprised of pediatric patients aged 18 months to 17 years and the second group consisted of children under the age of 18 months.  Among the 53 patients, half of the children were undergoing ear tube replacement surgery due to the fluid build up in the middle ear, and the other half was undergoing surgery but not associated to the ears. The researchers found that the smartphone app diagnosed the ear infection with 85% accuracy than the conventional otoscope.

According to the study, the researchers observed that in the absence of fluid, the mobility of eardrum reflects a variety of sound waves. These sound waves does not interfere much with the chirp sound, creating a broad, shallow dip in the overall signal. When fluid is present, there is no sign of eardrum mobility and the sound waves once reflected, interfere more strongly with the chirp and create a fine, intense drop in the signal. To prove the consistency of this system, the researchers tried experimenting with different types of a paper funnel and various smartphones.

The advances in technology is a relief for parents who can monitor the ear infection in their kids without prior medical training.

Source: ScienceTranslationalMedicine

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