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Diagnosing Ear Infections With Your Smartphone03:27

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It's that time of the year when kids can come down with all manner of ailments. Of all the illnesses kids pick up, ear infections are the most common. About 80 percent of all children get one before the age of 3, and some susceptible children have recurring infections throughout their early years. From our tech partner IEEE Spectrum, Eliza Strickland has the story of a new smartphone tool that will soon help parents cope.

If you’re a parent, you’ve probably listened to your baby crying and worried about the meaning of those wails. Is it hunger or sleepiness, or could it be an ear infection?

Wilbur Lam, a pediatrician and chief medical officer for a startup called CellScope, says this is how the scene might play out for a worried parent today:

"It’s late at night, I have a screaming child and he’s had a history of ear infections before," Lam says. "Typically what I would do right now is, okay, let’s bring the kid to the emergency room, tell the emergency room doc he has a history of ear infections. He probably has another one right now. The ER doc looks at the ear and says, 'Yep, you know, you’re right. Here’s a prescription.' But that whole process can take eight hours because you have to go to the ER."

Lam helped CellScope develop a tool that snaps onto a smartphone over the phone’s camera lens. The attachment turns the phone into an otoscope, the tool doctors use to look into patients’ ears and check for signs of infection.

"We are enabling the parent to say, OK, I have a screaming child. I’m going to take out my phone, clip this on and go to my app and stick this in the kid’s ear. And I don’t really have to know exactly what I’m looking at. My doctor just says, 'OK, stick it in the ear and move it around a little bit, take a video.' Then I’ll transmit the video to one of CellScope’s on-call physicians or maybe my own physician."

A physician can immediately evaluate the parent’s photos or videos, make a diagnosis and call in a prescription if necessary. And Lam says this won’t just save time and hassle; it will also save our health care system a lot of money.

"Although you would think it’s not a big deal — how much could it really cost to do a physical exam and to look in kids ears — it’s so common that collectively it is a major cost burden on our healthcare system," he says.

Lam says the CellScope Oto is just one example of a pendulum swing in medical care — from house calls to hospitals, and now back to the home.

"If you look at 19th century medicine, the physician would go to the patients’ homes," he says. "But now with technology being much more pervasive and at home, I think it’s going back to that other model."

Pediatricians who tried out the CellScope Oto in their offices reported that kids were often more cooperative when they got to see photos and videos of their own ears. One doctor was able to show his patient exactly what he was trying to extract from the kid's painful ear: it was a popcorn kernel.

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