Researchers are developing a smartphone app that allows parents to detect fluid retention in a child's ear using a simple paper funnel – a symptom of ear infection.
The app is still experimental and requires clearance from the Food and Drug Administration before it can be launched. However, early data released Wednesday in Science Translational Medicine suggests that the smartphone can provide both a performance and an expensive test in a doctor's office. It should be emphasized that the microphone and the microphone are used for diagnosis Speakers of the phone are used.
"All you really need to do to detect ear fluid is the use of sound," says Justin Chan, a graduate student at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Technology at the University of Washington in Seattle.
To focus that sound, doctors and parents built a small paper funnel. The tip of the funnel fits into the ear canal. The app then sends short, soft tone "like a bird chirps" in the ear, says Chan.
The funnel picks up the echo of this sound and the app then analyzes it. When there is fluid behind the eardrum, the echoes are different than in a healthy ear. An algorithm on the phone finds out almost immediately.
Chan uses a wine glass as an analogy. "When a wine glass is empty or half full, tapping produces another sound," he says. "And that's exactly what we do with our tool."
Chan is the lead author of a study in which other researchers participated, including his close associate Dr. Ing. Sharat Raju of the University of Washington and the Seattle Children's Hospital and Research Institute.
About 50 children had their ears checked with the app. Some of these children were previously operated on the eardrum so that the doctors could check the results of the app. The scientists report that in about 85 percent of cases it was correct, comparable to the technology currently used in ENT clinics.
Chan and his colleagues founded a company to develop the app as a commercial product. He says they are in the process of asking the FDA for their consent to commercialization. The agency would need further studies to assess the performance and reliability of the app. However, he is confident that the group will be able to collect this data by the end of the year.
"It's promising, but it's still too early to say how accurate it is." Based on the newly released data, Dr. Kenny Chan, chief ENT specialist at Children's Hospital Colorado. "We have to wait and see."
One big question is how useful this will be for parents and doctors.
Fluid behind the eardrum is a symptom of ear infection, but "not every fluid is an infection," says Pamela Mudd, one ear. Ear, nose and throat specialist at the Children's National Health System in Washington, DC "It would be more of a test if [see if] something happens behind the eardrum that could affect my child" than an ear infection diagnose.
Doctors really need to examine a child to make this diagnosis, which is based on examining the ear, temperature, and other clinical symptoms you.
Mucus and other light fluid can accumulate behind the eardrum and not lead to infection, she says. When she examines a child's ear and can not see it, she refers it to a clinic where doctors use an instrument called a tympanometer, which uses sound waves to measure the fluid behind the eardrum.
At the same time, the Audiological Clinic frequently checks for hearing loss. This helps in deciding on the treatment, such as whether a child benefits from tubing for draining accumulated fluid.
Assuming the app has proven effective, Mudd says she wants to talk with parents about how to interpret the results before recommending them to buy them.
"They may not have the knowledge that they need to understand what the devices tell them," she says. The developers suggest that the app can help parents avoid a visit to the doctor's office, but Mudd says the opposite could be the case.
"This can increase our use of the healthcare system" when parents take their children to the doctor for what may be a passing bit of fluid behind the eardrum. There may be cases where this is appropriate, she says.
Chan, the ENT doctor in Colorado, is also concerned about this. "To speculate that this could replace the need for a doctor's visit, I think that's a bit far-fetched," he says.
Doctors came across this problem after Apple released a watch that could detect an irregular heartbeat, notes Oliver Aalami, a vascular surgeon at Stanford University who also looks into mobile health applications.
"There was a lot of hype at first, but when you talk to the cardiologists, they were very worried," he says, because doctors were suddenly confronted with a large number of concerned patients and it was not clear if all these new medical appointments and drug interventions and tests were actually helpful.
Because of these concerns, Apple is now conducting an extensive follow-up study to gauge the benefits and risks of the app. Assuming that the eardrum app is FDA approved, Aalami suspects that a similar study might be needed to find out if the app is an overall benefit.
His first impression when reading the research report was that the app would be more useful in a doctor's office, both in the United States and in parts of the world that have less medical resources. "It may be a bit too advanced for home use," he says.
However, the inventors strive for a home use market. "I think it's very similar to a thermometer – if you think your child is suffering from the flu or cold, check the temperature several times a day," says Justin Chan. "We believe that this has a similar purpose."
He says the developers have not yet set a price, but that the app should be widely available, especially in developing countries, so the price is accordingly high.  For the young computer scientist, this project could be an exciting start to his career. "I know it's something that can touch millions of lives," he says. "And I think that's pretty rare in research."
You can contact NPR science correspondent Richard Harris at email@example.com.