health

App that tells you when to worry about a tickly cough


Would you trust a computer to diagnose your health complaint? It seems that plenty of people are prepared to do so, as a stream of new apps which help you track symptoms and conditions through artificial intelligence (AI) have recently hit the market.

AI relies on computer-generated algorithms to analyse data and make a decision — without human input — for example, to determine if someone needs medical attention or how much medication they should take. 

These are different from earlier health apps, which tend to give general advice, as they monitor symptoms that are difficult for humans to quantify.

AI relies on computer-generated algorithms to analyse data and make a decision — without human input — for example, to determine if someone needs medical attention or how much medication they should take

One app monitors the sound and regularity of a cough and provides continuous data, such as frequency and time, to help the user pick up subtle changes in cough patterns — dramatic changes will alert them to seek medical help.

Developed by researchers in the U.S., the free app, called Hyfe, uses voice recognition technology to record, count and monitor a cough, even while asleep.

If, for instance, the user usually coughs 20 times an hour, and that suddenly rises to 200, they will receive a signal that there may be a problem, says Joe Brew, an epidemiologist and public health expert who helped to develop the app.

Although Hyfe isn’t a diagnostic tool, it flags up the need for further examination and analysis.

‘A cough is a crucial health symptom that has never really been quantified or analysed like this,’ says Brew.

The Hyfe app was first used in Uganda to prompt people with suspected tuberculosis (TB), a serious bacterial infection, to see a doctor.

‘A TB cough has a specific sound which most doctors recognise, and the sooner treatment is started, the better,’ explains Joe Brew.

If, for instance, the user usually coughs 20 times an hour, and that suddenly rises to 200, they will receive a signal that there may be a problem, says Joe Brew, an epidemiologist and public health expert who helped to develop the app

If, for instance, the user usually coughs 20 times an hour, and that suddenly rises to 200, they will receive a signal that there may be a problem, says Joe Brew, an epidemiologist and public health expert who helped to develop the app

Although TB isn’t as much of a concern in the UK (it has been largely eradicated thanks to vaccination) the Hyfe team hopes the app, which uses a smartphone’s microphone to record coughs, will encourage people to see a doctor earlier if their coughing patterns change considerably.

Ian Pavord, a professor of respiratory medicine at Oxford University, believes an app such as Hyfe could be useful for patients with chronic conditions as, he says, a sudden increase in coughing could be a warning sign of an asthma attack or a flare-up of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a group of lung conditions — such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis — that cause breathing difficulties.

‘It’s important to monitor coughing, and this sounds like it might be a useful tool,’ says Professor Pavord.

But Dr Helen Salisbury, a GP and a senior medical fellow at Oxford University, isn’t convinced health tracking apps are always that helpful.

‘If a patient’s recordings reveal their coughing has increased by 10 per cent over three days, I’m not sure how useful that information is,’ she says. Her concern is the ‘worried well’ may become anxious after using apps such as Hyfe.

Another recent launch, the Atlas Health app (free to download, although subscribers need to pay £199 for a gut microbiome test and reports), claims to help create a healthy gut microbiome for its users.

It works by analysing a photo of every meal eaten, and the developer says it is programmed with AI technology and algorithms designed by nutritionists and clinicians to provide personalised food recommendations and weekly goals.

And then there is MySugr Pro, developed by pharmaceutical giant Roche. This subscription-based app allows people with diabetes to download their blood sugar readings to their iPhone, as well as their carbohydrate intake and insulin doses to help them stay on top of their diabetes.

‘Some of the diabetes apps are excellent as they do help people to manage the condition,’ says Dr Salisbury.

However, if people with no real health concerns use apps to monitor their diets, coughing habits and glucose levels, this could lead to unnecessary anxiety for the user, she stresses.

‘As a doctor, I will always encourage people to eat well and to exercise, but if they are getting hung up on the numbers in these apps then that strikes me as rather obsessive and not particularly helpful,’ she adds.



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