Now Your Smartphone Can Be Used To Diagnose Ear Infections At Home

Cameras in smartphones will inevitably replace nearly all portable cameras and camcorders, but could they also make basic medical instruments obsolete? A startup called CellScope plans to do just that by turning smartphones into digital first aid kits. To kickoff its campaign, the company is developing an iPhone attachment that turns the smartphone into an otoscope, providing a magnified view of the middle ear.

Why does the company want to make it easy for doctor’s and parents to peer inside their kids’ heads? Because ear infections are the number 1 reason children are taken to see pediatricians and often why they end up in the emergency room. According to the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, 93 percent of children before the age of 7 will have an ear infection and 6-8 percent will suffer with frequent infections, defined as 3 or more in a 12-month period. In the US alone, 30 million pediatrician visits each year are attributed to ear infections at a cost in the billions of dollars.

The peripheral attaches to the top of an iPhone and provides a 10x magnification. Using CellScope’s web platform, users can upload captured images and pediatricians can remotely assess the severity of the infection. Doctors can then provide a diagnosis, prescribe antibiotics, or recommend the child be brought into the office for a more thorough examination. Additionally, the images enter into the patient’s electronic medical records, so any susceptibilities to infection can be tracked through image comparison throughout the childhood years.

Because children who suffer from frequent ear infections may get fluid buildup that can lead to hearing loss, pediatricians frequently recommend implantation of tympanostomy (ear) tubes. But this requires major surgery (general anesthesia required) to get them in and out, if they don’t fall out on their own.

The smartphone otoscope allows parents to easily monitor a child’s ears closely, which may help provide greater insight into the kinds of infections that are occurring. The stored images also provide an easy way to get a second opinion to ensure that surgery is the best answer. Altogether, this may help lower the number of ear tube surgeries, which is estimated to be around 700,000 per year in the US, according to The New York Times.

For occasional ear infections, pediatricians can do little other than prescribe antibiotics, but a report from 2010 by CBS news indicates that in many cases, the best medicine for a child’s ear infection is no antibiotics at all, that is, “watchful waiting.” Coupled with a better understanding of the anatomy of the middle ear, parents can use the device to better manage the infection at home rather than immediately heading off to the doctor’s office, which itself can be a source of additional bacteria and viruses that can add insult to injury. But pediatricians can equally benefit from having a digital record of the infections available in the medical records, allowing them to review images of past infections rather than just relying on written descriptions.

The technology for CellScope originated at the University of California, Berkeley, where researchers were focusing on the development of a fluorescence microscope peripheral that could help diagnose tuberculosis in patients in developing countries (the research was published in PLoS One here). CellScope was formed in order to bring smartphone microscopes to market, but to begin, it’s aiming at microscopy applications that require lower magnification, such as the otoscope and another device in the pipeline, a dermascope to diagnose rashes and other skin ailments. Last year, Cellscope participated in the Rock Health incubator, which is an accelerator for digital startups in the health industry, and recently, the company raised $1 million from Khosla Ventures to work on this device.

Pediatricians in the Bay area and Atlanta have already been testing out the device, and a clinical study is underway to evaluate its diagnostic accuracy compared to traditional methods.

CellScope is just one of the companies that aims to utilize smartphones to bring more professional healthcare tools into the home. Erik Douglas, co-founder and CEO of Cellscope, said “It seems pretty obvious that this sort of thing is going to happen…5 years from now, 10 years from now, people will be able to do diagnosis from home. Patients will have more control over taking data and being a participant in their healthcare delivery.”

Considering that nearly half of Americans now have smartphones, it’s time we started using all that computational power to help reduce healthcare costs and keep kids healthier.

Check out the CellScope founders talking about their tech:

David J. Hill
David J. Hill
David started writing for Singularity Hub in 2011 and served as editor-in-chief of the site from 2014 to 2017 and SU vice president of faculty, content, and curriculum from 2017 to 2019. His interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but he'll always be a chemist at heart.
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