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Smartphone App And Paper Funnel Could Help Diagnose Ear Infections


Most parents have been there at one time or another - a crying, feverish kid, usually at 3 a.m., no clue as to what the problem is. Researchers in Seattle may have a solution to that. They're developing a smartphone app that parents might be able to use to detect fluid in a child's ear. And that could help diagnose that vexing and common childhood ailment - the ear infection. NPR science correspondent Richard Harris reports on a clever use of phone technology in the crowded world of health apps.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Justin Chan, who is working toward his computer science Ph.D. at the University of Washington, noticed that his nephews and nieces were always getting earaches that sent them to the pediatrician to see if they had ear infections.

JUSTIN CHAN: So I was just thinking - you know, wouldn't it be good if we could design the technology that a parent could just use in their home that is super accurate and also accessible to be used without, you know, years of clinical training?

HARRIS: Chan realized that smartphones actually have what's needed to look for one prominent symptom of ear infections - fluid behind the eardrum.

J. CHAN: All you really need to do to detect ear fluid is using sound.

HARRIS: He and his collaborators designed a simple paper funnel that gets taped to the bottom of the smartphone so both the speaker and the microphone can focus on the ear canal. The end of the funnel is positioned on the ear.

J. CHAN: And then the speaker can play a few soft chirps, kind of like a bird chirping.


J. CHAN: Once you place it in the ear, it takes about three seconds to transmit the chirps and only takes, like, less than a second for the data to be processed and to give you a result. So it can be easily done locally on the phone. You don't even need a Wi-Fi connection.

HARRIS: The algorithm on the phone can tell if there's fluid behind the eardrum by analyzing the sound that bounces back up the funnel and into the microphone, Chan explains.

J. CHAN: Just kind of like a wine glass - if a wine glass is empty or half full, tapping on it is going to produce a different sound. And that's exactly what we do with our tool.

HARRIS: They tested it on about 50 children, and it was right about 85 percent of the time, he says. That's about as good as the high-priced professional instruments that hearing clinics use.

PAMELA MUDD: I think the thing seemed really awesome.

HARRIS: Pamela Mudd, an ear, nose and throat doctor at Children's National Health System in Washington, D.C., was impressed by the technology as described in a paper published by the journal Science Translational Medicine. She's not quite sure how it would work out in practice.

MUDD: Not all fluid is an infection.

HARRIS: So if a parent finds fluid in a child's ear, that doesn't mean it's time for antibiotics. Their first impulse will probably be to call the pediatrician and bring the child in for a more thorough exam.

MUDD: Is the child having a fever? Has the child had a cold recently? There's other things to take into consideration.

HARRIS: Mudd says this could be a useful tool for children who have ongoing problems with fluid in the ear.

MUDD: But I think it's really important that parents who are picking up this application have talked to their pediatrician about it - maybe their ENT provider if they have one - before they go and use it because they may be confused rather than helped by the results.

HARRIS: Though the app developers are hopeful that it will relieve parents of needless trips to the pediatrician, it could do just the opposite, says Dr. Kenny Chan, chief of pediatric otolaryngology at Children's Hospital Colorado.

KENNY CHAN: To speculate that this may replace the need for a physician's visit, I think that's a little far-fetched.

HARRIS: He's also waiting for the results of bigger studies to see whether the app really would work as well as the developers hope. Justin Chan, in Seattle, says he and his team have formed a company and are seeking Food and Drug Administration clearance for their software once they gather more needed data.

J. CHAN: This is a project that is personally very meaningful to me because this is something that I know can touch millions of lives. Like, that's very gratifying.

HARRIS: Richard Harris, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SZYMON'S "RUNAWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.