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Can A Smartphone Diagnose Your Cough?

November 10, 2009

American and Australian scientists say they are working on a new breed of software which could turn your cell phone into a Star Trek-like device capable of diagnosing what ails you simply by coughing into the microphone.

Researchers at the research firm STAR Analytical Services say that if medical experts are able to tell whether a patient has pneumonia or just a cold, or whether an infection is viral or bacterial just by the sound of a cough, then there’s no reason why a computer program shouldn’t be able to do it as well.

And they claim that they are developing a program that can do just that, potentially saving patients and insurers millions in expensive and unnecessary trips to the hospital, while at the same time alerting seriously ill patients to their possibly hazardous health condition.

In the medical field, where diagnostic devices and treatments for specific diseases have been growing ever more high-tech in recent years, Suzanne Smith of STAR posed the question: “Why haven’t we been measuring coughs?”

“It’s the most common symptom which a patient presents, and we are relying on doctors and nurses with good old technology from the 19th century,” explained Smith.

A cough can generally be described as a defensive reflex used by the body to help clear the respiratory passage of mucous, foreign particles and microorganisms.  The anatomy of a cough consists of three phases: inhalation of air to the lungs, forced exhalation against a closed glottis, and finally a forceful release of air from the lungs following a reopening of the glottis which is accompanied by a complex burst of sounds.  On average, the whole process lasts only about quarter of a second.

Despite the basic similarity of all coughs, however, significant variations exist between coughs and are typically dependent on the kind of illness from which the patient is suffering.  A voluntary cough, for example, is usually louder and more vigorous than the involuntary coughs of a sick person.  The degree to which the vocal cords vibrate after the initial outburst of the cough sound can also give clues as to what type of irritant is present in the respiratory tract.

STAR researchers say that their software will attempt to analyze a patient’s cough by comparing it with a pre-recorded digital library of various cough sounds, all of which will be labeled and classified according to sex, age, weight and type of illness.

At the moment, company researchers say that their database consists of coughs from several dozen patients, but they estimate that they will have to use nearly 1,000 before the program can be considered reliable and accurate.

While the nascent program is currently being tested and developed on a standard computer, engineers say it will likely not be a problem to convert the software into a smartphone-friendly application.

Cough specialist Dr. Jaclyn Smith at the University of Manchester, expressed enthusiasm over the project.

“If they can find certain parameters to use coughs to diagnose disease that could be fabulous.  It could really improve disease diagnosis and help improve people’s access to health care,” Smith told Discovery News.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world-renowned philanthropic organization, has donated $100,000 to STAR to pursue their digital cough-detecting research, which they hope could potentially become an effective and inexpensive early diagnostic tool in third-world countries where pneumonia kills millions of children every year.

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