Your smartphone has the potential to detect health-related issues

By recording the sound of their coughs into the app, users may be able to get alerts to an illness and be prompted to seek medical advice. — AFP Relaxnews

When it comes to using the smartphone to look up information on health-related matters, most people would think of self-diagnosing their issues through search engines. As a result, people could end up with less-than-accurate results based on their own findings.

With technology, researchers are finding ways to incorporate more intelligent tools in tandem with smartphones to detect health-related issues.

Cough it up

Have you ever wondered if a cough is more than just a cough? US startup Hyfe is building a cough-tracking app to monitor and possibly identify respiratory illnesses like asthma and even Covid-19.

According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, researchers are using artificial intelligence to identify the type and severity of diseases from coughs. Peter Small, a tuberculosis expert and chief medical officer of Hyfe Inc, described the technology as “acoustic epidemiology”.

He added that the sound and frequency of coughs carries a wealth of medical information and its patterns can be detected by AI.

By recording the sound of their coughs into the app, users may be able to get alerted to an illness and be prompted to seek medical advice. Small said the app can also potentially be used to monitor an office or nursing home to detect an increase in respiratory illness if lots of people are coughing.

Skin deep

US researchers at the University of Washington have discovered a way to use smartphone cameras to “identify potentially harmful bacteria on skin and in oral cavities”.

Led by Ruikang Wang, a professor of bioengineering and of ophthalmology, the team affixed 10 small LED black lights around a smartphone case’s camera opening to illuminate bacteria in images taken by the smartphone.

Wang explained that bacteria emits many colours that are missed by conventional smartphone cameras.

“The LED lights ‘excite’ a class of bacteria-derived molecules called porphyrins, causing them to emit a red fluorescent signal that the smartphone camera can then pick up,” said lead author and bioengineering doctoral student Qinghua He.

The LED illumination gives researchers visual information about bacterial signatures on the skin and mouth. Researchers believe the initial success of the study could form the basis of home-based methods to assess basic skin and oral health, thereby better informing users on how and when to seek further medical advice.

“There are a lot of directions we can go here. Our bodies are complex environments, and this approach has great potential to look at many types of problems,” Wang said.

Aid for anaemia

Anaemia is described as a condition where a person may experience fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath and difficulty concentrating due to low blood haemoglobin levels.

Website Medical News Today reported that researchers from various universities and health institutes have conducted a study to see if the smartphone camera can be used to detect anaemia.

The first phase of the study involved taking images of the inner lower eyelids of ER patients for researchers to develop “an algorithm that maximises colour resolution and a predictive model comparing the skin and whites of the eyes to haemoglobin levels”.

The algorithm was then tested in the second phase using smartphone images of 202 different patients in the emergency department, with findings that showed a 72.6% accuracy in predicting anaemia.

It could also predict cases of severe anaemia where patients would require blood transfusions with an accuracy of between 86% to 94.4%.

Lead study author Dr Selim Suner, of Brown University and Rhode Island Hospital, said the study indicates that anaemia prediction using a smartphone is a “viable concept” but that more research is needed to further develop the method.

Skin search

Google announced that it will pilot an AI-powered dermatology assist tool to help users with searches related to skin, hair and nail issues. The company said that the tool is a web-based application where people can use their smartphone camera to take images of the afflicted area from different angles.

Users can then submit the images and answer a series of questions on skin type and other symptoms. The AI model will then analyse the data and provide users with a list of possible matching conditions for them to research further.

The tech giant said that users will be presented with dermatologist-reviewed information and answers to questions as well as matching images from the Web. However, it maintains that the tool is not intended to provide a diagnosis or as a replacement for medical advice.

Instead, it hopes that users can utilise the tool to make informed decisions on the next steps to take on their dermatology-related concerns.

Detecting depression

Do you hope that your smartphone will be able to tell if you’re feeling the blues? The Wall Street Journal reported that Apple is believed to be working on technology to diagnose depression and cognitive decline.

Sources said an array of sensory data such as physical activity, sleep patterns and even typing behaviour will be used as signals for its algorithm to detect certain conditions. The report added that the company hopes the technology can become the basis for unique features on their devices.

The research is still in early stages and may never lead to new devices, according to people familiar with the matter.

The report stated that the efforts came after Apple announced a partnership with the University of California for research on stress, anxiety and depression as well as Biogen, a pharmaceutical company, for studies on mild cognitive impairment.

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