Using smartphones and the cloud to diagnose ear infections

The study made use of both commercially available otoscopes, and a low-cost, custom-made alternative that connects to smartphones(Credit: Claude Laurent)

Ear infections are extremely common, with five out of every six children experiencing one before they're three years old. But in developing countries, the lack of trained personnel means that they're often misdiagnosed, or missed completely. A new tool developed by researchers at the Umea University in Sweden, in collaboration with scientists at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, is designed to leverage the power of smartphones and the cloud, making accurate diagnoses easier and more widely available.

Not treating an ear infection (otitis media) can be dangerous, potentially leading to hearing impairments, and in certain extreme cases, can even have life-threatening complication. The newly-developed system could have a big impact in the developing world, providing easy diagnosis that doesn't require the presence of an expert.

The process is simple. Users simply use an otoscope, which are commercially available, to take an image of the inner ear. That image is then uploaded to the cloud via a smartphone, where it's automatically analyzed and compared with high-resolution archive imagery. The software looks for predefined visual features, and places the new image in one of five diagnostic groups.

In testing, the automatically generated diagnosis was found to have an accuracy of 80.6 percent when using imagery from a commercially available otoscope, which compares very favorably to the 64-80 percent accuracy achieved by general practitioners and paediatricians. The team also developed its own low-cost, custom-made otoscope that connects directly to a smartphone. The results there were similarly impressive, with an accuracy of 78.7 percent.

"This method has great potential to ensure accurate diagnoses of ear infections in countries where such opportunities are not available at present," said paper co-author Claude Laurent. "Since the method is both easy and cheap to use, it enables rapid and reliable diagnoses of a very common childhood illness."

The idea of leveraging modern tech for diagnosing ear infections is something we've actually seen before. The CellScope Oto utilizes a similar idea, allowing parents to image the inside of the child's ear at home via a physical smartphone attachment. Diagnosis isn't automatic in that case though, still requiring the eyes of a trained professional.

The results of the new research are available in full, in the journal EbioMedicine.

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