Sleep apnea, persistent coughs, bipolar attacks: There could be apps for that

Medical researchers are testing three smartphone apps that can diagnose ailments with impressive accuracy.


Scientific American has reported on three smartphone apps undergoing trials that can accurately diagnose sleep apnea, identify the ailment causing persistent coughing, and predict when a bipolar attack is imminent.

The apps are being tested at three different institutions and each has undergone preliminary testing. These will be followed up with testing using larger patient bases, but have shown impressive results so far.

The ApneaApp being tested at the University of Washington uses sonar waves sent from the phone's speaker to gauge whether the test patient has sleep apnea and if so how severe it is. The waves bounce off the sleeping patient and the app analyzes the waves when received back at the smartphone.

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In a preliminary trial the app accurately diagnosed 32 out of 37 patients, failing only on those that doctors considered to be borderline cases of sleep apnea.

Patients currently must wear an unwieldy apparatus over the face while sleeping In a sleep clinic to diagnose apnea so this simple app and phone approach is much better for the patient and more cost-effective.

The ResApp tested at the University of Queensland can diagnose respiratory ailments such as asthma and pneumonia with the patient coughing four or five times into the smartphone. Testing showed the app accurately diagnosed both the ailment and the severity with 90 percent accuracy.

A larger trial is underway that researchers believe will lead to diagnosis of other respiratory illnesses.

Priori is an app tested at the University of Michigan that could have a big impact on the quality of life for those afflicted with type 1 bipolar disorder. By analyzing speech patterns while talking on the phone, changes observed by the app, e.g. speed, can predict when a bipolar incident is about to occur.

A second trial is underway including more patients to verify the results.

It's good to see medical researchers looking at innovative ways to use existing smartphone hardware tuned to special apps to get accurate diagnoses. This will have significant impact on the cost of medical care in the future, and allow patients more control over their treatment.

The trials mentioned in this article predate Apple's ResearchKit initiative that makes it easy to get patients to sign up for such programs. Hopefully medical researchers will get onboard with ResearchKit to help advance healthcare at a rapid pace.