New smartphone app takes health test from hospital to home

SpiroSmart utilizes a phone's built-in microphone to measure a person’s lung capacity.

Photo by Jennifer Cheng

In a span of 15 years, smartphones have gone from a mere concept to a device that can tell a person everything from where to find the cheapest gas to what tomorrow’s weather will be. Now, a group of researchers from the UW, UW Medicine, and Seattle Children’s Hospital have given smartphones a new purpose: monitoring lung health.

SpiroSmart is a new application that utilizes a phone’s built-in microphone to turn it into a personal spirometer, a device used by doctors to measure the volume of air a person breathes in and out. Those figures can then be used as a preliminary estimate of the person’s overall lung health.

Eric Larson, a Ph.D. student in electrical engineering and one of three main researchers from the UW that worked on the app, said it took nearly two years from start to finish to create the final product. Larson said the app is part of an overall shift he wants to see in medical care.

“I would really like to move medical sensing from inside the clinic to outside the clinic,” Larson said.

Following instructions on the screen, a person using the SpiroSmart app holds their phone at approximately arm’s length, breathes in as deeply as they can, and exhales quickly and forcefully towards the phone. The app then analyzes the noises emitted, and creates the same type of curved graph a clinical spirometer does that doctors then use to help diagnose a patient.

Dr. James Stout, a UW professor in the department of pediatrics, said that although portable spirometers exist, being able to conduct the test through a smartphone is something new.

“This, to our knowledge, is the only example of this particular test — spirometry — being able to be collected remotely via a smartphone,” Stout said.

Stout also serves as director of the interactive Medical Training Resources (iMTR) group, a research group in the School of Medicine’s Division of General Pediatrics that has developed a program that includes online spirometry training for health care professionals. Stout said this new app could be another tool used to train health care professionals to conduct clinical spirometry tests.

“This would give us an alternative that pretty much anyone could use as a training tool when doing the test,” Stout said.

Dr. Margaret Rosenfeld, an associate professor of pediatrics at the UW, and attending physician at Seattle Children’s Hospital, co-authored the original paper, along with Larson; graduate student Mayank Goel; computer science professors Shwetak Patel and Gaetano Borriello; and Sonya Heltsche, a biostatistician at Seattle Children’s. Rosenfeld said she wants the SpiroSmart app to allow people to monitor certain lung ailments more closely from home.

“My hope is that it will help people with chronic lung diseases such as asthma, COPD, and cystic fibrosis manage their diseases at home,” Larson wrote in an email. “Hopefully earlier recognition of disease flares will allow earlier intervention to improve outcomes.”

Early results from the app are promising. Before presenting their paper at the Association for Computing Machinery’s International Conference on Ubiquitous Computing (UbiComp) in September, the group tested the app on 52 subjects, recording measurements that had a 5.1 percent error rate, well within the 5 to 7 percent error rate required by the American Thoracic Society for clinical spirometers.

The group is now conducting clinical trials as they seek Food and Drug Administration approval, which would allow the app to be used by doctors in the United States.

Reach reporter Joe Veyera at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @JosephVeyera

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