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App Lets Patients Monitor Lung Health With Smartphone

New technology mimics commercial spirometers (Sept. 18)

People with asthma or other chronic lung problems are typically able to obtain a measure of their lung function only at the doctor’s office a few times a year by blowing into a specialized piece of equipment. More frequent testing at home could detect problems earlier, potentially avoiding emergency room visits and hospitalization.

A new tool developed by researchers at the University of Washington (UW), UW Medicine, and the Seattle Children’s Hospital lets people monitor their lung function at home or on the go by blowing into their smartphones. A paper presented this month at the Association for Computing Machinery’s International Conference on Ubiquitous Computing showed results that came within 5% of commercial devices, meaning the new tool already meets the medical community’s standards for accuracy.

UW announced the research on September 18.

Existing spirometers have patients with chronic lung ailments, such as asthma, cystic fibrosis, and chronic bronchitis, blow into a tube with a small turbine that measures the speed of the flow. Patients take a deep breath in and then exhale as hard and as fast as they can until they can’t blow any more. The spirometer measures how much and how fast the person can breathe out, which tells doctors whether their airways are narrowed or filled with mucous.

The UW researchers found that they could model a person’s trachea and vocal tract as a system of tubes to replace the spirometer, and use a phone to analyze the sound-wave frequencies to detect when the breath is resonating in those natural pipes.

The researchers tested the system on 52 mostly healthy volunteers using an iPhone 4S smartphone and its built-in microphone. The UW research app, SpiroSmart, came within 5.1% of a commercial portable spirometer that costs thousands of dollars. Natural variation in how much effort a patient uses to exhale during each test means that about a 3% variation is unavoidable.

The researchers are working with the UW’s Center for Commercialization to bring the technology to market.

For more information, visit the University of Washington Web site.

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