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New Device Will Let You Measure Lung Function Through Your Phone’s Mic

May 31, 2016Posted by Wendy Joan Biddlecombe

A tiny device on the path toward FDA approval could help patients in the developing world and beyond to screen their lung capacity on their own without having to make a lengthy—or perhaps, unnecessary—trip to the nearest clinic.

It could also save their lives.

For years, a team of researchers at the University of Washington have been working to create a more inexpensive and accessible way for people living with lung diseases such as asthma, cystic fibrosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) to test how well their lungs are functioning on their own.

The method they came up with is called SpiroCall and uses a phone’s microphone to measure lung function using an algorithm. 

“If this thing ends up working well, there’s no limit to how many people will be able to get access,” said University of Washington computer science and engineering doctoral student Mayank Goel. “If seven to 10 percent of the world’s population has asthma and they all have access to a phone, the limit will be the amount of awareness we can generate.

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The existing clinical product that measures a patient’s lung function is called a spirometer and those devices usually cost about $2,000, Goel added.

Lung diseases account for 10 percent of the world’s deaths, a statistic that surpasses the number of AIDS deaths by four times.

Their research study alone proves the importance of this device for everyone, not just those already diagnosed with a condition: of the 100 research participants from the University of Washington who believed they did not have a lung ailment, 15 participants learned during the study that they had a condition, such as asthma or bronchitis, using SpiroCall.

Here’s how it works: to test lung function, a patient calls an 800 number from their phone—smartphone, flip phone, cordless phone, analog telephone, it doesn’t matter—and exhales fast and strong. The microphone sensor picks up the sound, and SpiroCall estimates how much air is coming out and how fast.

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Using SpiroCall, lung patients only need their phone and an introductory training from a physician or healthcare provider to ensure they are using the proper exhale technique so the microphone can measure their lung condition.

Over the last four years, the team of UW researchers have collected data from more than 4,000 study participants in the Seattle and Tacoma area, India and Bangladesh, using both SpiroCall and conventional spirometers.

“We are getting a lot of participating patients from Bangladesh, and it’s hard for us to get that many patients in Seattle because the Seattle area has a lot of clinics. It’s diluted,” Goel said. “But in Bangladesh, there can be one clinic for 1,000 square kilometers [386 miles], and that clinic gets an insane amount of patients, 50 a day to see one doctor. And that helps us [for research purposes], but at the same time, those are the patients that we want to help.”

Goel said SpiroCall isn’t intended to replace devices in clinics, but to save patients from traveling long distances, or help patients who don’t have access to a clinic that has their own spirometer. Patients need to test their lung function as little as once a year, or as much as twice a day, and to determine whether they do indeed need to go see a doctor. 

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Goel and the research team recently presented a paper at the Association for Computing Machinery’s conference in San Jose, California, and it was very well received, Goel said, because of SpiroCall’s potential to be used right away. The paper also showed that SpiroCall is just as medically accurate as spirometers, coming within 6.2 percent of the conventional device’s results.  

The next step is FDA clearance so patients can be trained to start using SpiroCall. Goel estimates this could happen by the end of this year, and until then, the research team is looking for partners to help collect data in clinics.

They don’t have any social media accounts or active websites set up yet, but you can read their academic paper here.

Check back with Headlines for the Hopeful, we’ll make sure to keep you up to date on Spirocall’s progress.

For now, check out the video below for more:

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