By Ruth Bayang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Is your cough a potential symptom of COVID-19, tuberculosis (TB), asthma?
UW Medicine doctors and University of Washington engineers are on a mission to provide answers by developing a smartphone app designed to distinguish COVID-19 coughs, for instance, from other respiratory illnesses.
In a recent study published on Jan. 3 in Science Advances, researchers gathered over 33,000 coughs from 149 patients with TB and compared them to coughs from 46 patients with various respiratory conditions. Utilizing a machine-learning model named TBscreen, the researchers fed audio recordings of the coughs, collected through diverse microphones, into the app. Remarkably, the app, coupled with a smartphone mic, demonstrated a superior ability to predict which coughs were indicative of active TB compared to pricier microphones.
Dr. Thomas Hawn, co-director of the UW Medicine’s Center for Emerging and Re-emerging Infectious Diseases, highlighted the potential of the app. While not a definitive diagnosis, it could serve as an early alert for healthcare providers in offices or field stations to consider further testing.
Lead author Manuja Sharma, a UW doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering, emphasized the app’s focus on cough frequency, rather than sound, as a groundbreaking aspect. The study, conducted at the Kenya Medical Research Institute in Nairobi, involved participants with recorded coughs from various respiratory diseases, with the machine-learning model exclusively using involuntary coughs.
Results revealed an impressive 82% accuracy rate for the smartphone recording, outperforming the average 70% accuracy rate of more expensive microphones commonly used for TB detection.
Dr. David Horne, senior author of the paper, expressed optimism about the technology’s potential to enhance COVID-19 testing, once they are able to conduct more studies and test the same methodology above to distinguish COVID-19 coughs.
He said TB has “dethroned COVID-19 as the leading cause of infectious disease related death worldwide,” adding that an estimated 10 million people contracted TB and 1.4 million people died from it in 2022.
With anticipation, the smartphone app could play a crucial role in the ongoing battle against the COVID-19 and other respiratory pandemics.
The next step, Horne and Hawn said, is to try to validate the smartphone app’s effectiveness with a larger population sample including control groups to record the distinct coughs of people with diagnoses of COVID-19, COPD, pneumonia and asthma.
We could be hopeful that the app, combining with the test kit, would help people self-test at home easier. It would help people save some costs and encourage them to test when they feel sick. For marginalized groups who have less access to testing centers and who are burdened financially, this may be good news.
Made possible in part by the Washington State Department of Health through a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This information does not necessarily reflect the official policies of the Washington State Department of Health or the Department of Health and Human Services.