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New smartphone app sends ‘chirps’ into kids’ ears to diagnose ear infections

Smartphones can do it all — call you a taxi, give you directions, find you a date. But can those all-powerful phones play doctor, too?

Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle have invented a new smartphone application that they say can help parents and medical professionals diagnose children’s ear infections, according to a new study published Wednesday in Science Translational Medicine.

Here’s how the app works: First, a doctor or parent cuts a bit of paper and folds it into a funnel shape, putting the funnel between the smartphone and the child’s ear, researchers said in a news release on the findings. That funnel acts as a conduit as the phone sends soundwaves into the child’s ear canal — soundwaves that are measured after they bounce back off the eardrum.

The noise sent into the child’s ear sounds like a chirping bird, researchers said.

How much fluid is in the child’s ear (a sign of an ear infection) alters the soundwaves that bounce back, which the app then uses to help diagnose the illness.

One researcher offered a useful analogy — and one that frustrated parents might relate to.

“It’s like tapping a wine glass,” author and doctoral student Justin Chan said in a statement. “Depending on how much liquid is in it, you get different sounds. Using machine learning on these sounds, we can detect the presence of liquid.”

The app is still in the experimental stages, and before it could be used widely on children it would need to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration, NPR reports.

But if it does become available, it could be good news for many parents. Five in six children come down with at least one ear infection — and that’s just before the child turns 3, according to the National Institutes of Health, which says that “ear infections are the most common reason parents bring their child to a doctor.”

“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 study co-author Shyam Gollakota, a professor in the university’s engineering and computer science school. “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.”

Researchers said the app detects ear fluid with roughly the same accuracy levels as current more elaborate methods.

Ear infections, which are generally caused by bacteria, sprout up when the middle ear gets inflamed as fluid builds up behind a child’s eardrum, according to the NIH. And though the infection is possible in people of any age, kids are the most common victims.

Researchers said that prescribing antibiotics or using a wait-and-see approach can easily treat most ear infections, though chronic ear issues sometimes require draining.

“A quick screening at home could help parents decide whether or not they need to take their child to the doctor,” researchers said.

The team said it trained the algorithm used in the app by testing 53 kids — ranging in age from a year and a half to 17 — who were treated at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Roughly half of those kids were getting tubes in their ears replaced, while the others were getting their tonsils removed or another non-ear procedure.

“When we put in ear tubes, we make an incision into the eardrum and drain any fluid present,” author Dr. Sharat Raju, a surgical resident at the university’s medical school, said in a statement. “That’s the best way to tell if there is fluid behind the eardrum. So these surgeries created the ideal setting for this study.”

Researchers said the app works on kids of all ages and that they were able to train parents involved in the study to use the app at home.

“The ability to know how often and for how long fluid has been present could help us make the best management decisions with patients and parents,” study author Dr. Randall Bly, a medical professor, said in a statement. “It also could help primary care providers know when to refer to a specialist.”

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