In this technique, the smartphone sends soft audible signals into the ear through the paper funnel, which are reflected to the phone's microphone.
Middle ear infections result in fluid build-up in the space behind the eardrum; these infections are often painful and may result in fussy children who pull at their ears and complain of general discomfort. "A key advantage of our technology is that it does not require any additional hardware other than a piece of paper and a software app running on the smartphone".
The study was published Wednesday in the journal Science Translational Medicine. An experimental app beams in birdlike chirps, at a specific frequency. "In our case, we are not tapping but sending sounds, and using machine learning on these sounds to detect the presence of liquid".
"Designing an accurate screening tool on something as ubiquitous as a smartphone can be game-changing for parents as well as health care providers in resource-limited regions", said Shyam Gollakota, a co-author on the study and an associate professor of computer science and engineering at UW, in an announcement.
That's one reason the American Academy of Otolaryngology in 2016 called for development of at-home strategies to detect fluid buildup in the ears.
Ear infection can be hard to diagnose, since symptoms may not be present or may be vague, with a child pulling on their ears or developing a fever, for example.
One researcher offered a useful analogy - and one that frustrated parents might relate to.
In this undated photo provided by the University of Washington in May 2019, Dr. Randall Bly uses a uses a phone app and a paper funnel to focus the sound, to check his daughter for an ear infection, at the UW School of Medicine in Seattle.
"The definitive way to know if there is fluid is to make an incision in the eardrum", Gollakota explained. The algorithm that analyzes the audio was trained on older kids, but found to also work accurately on younger kids. Around half of the children were due to undergo surgery for ear tube placement and the other half were due to undergo surgeries for problems unrelated to ears. "So these surgeries created the ideal setting for this study".
The team wanted to give parents a quick and reliable way of screening for the condition at home, to help them decide whether or not to take their child to the doctor.
The app correctly identified the likelihood of fluid 85% of the time - similar to specialized tools that use acoustics or a puff of air for the goal, researchers said. The system correctly identified all five ears that did have fluid and nine of the 10 ears that did not have fluid.
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