Ear infections affect half a billion children worldwide. In developing countries, due in part because of a lack of health personnel, they are often misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all. This can lead to hearing impairments and even, most alarmingly, life-threatening complications. Researchers at Umeå University in Sweden may just have come up with an ingenious solution.
The team collaborated with the University of Pretoria in South Africa to developed a software-based method that automatically analyses images from a digital otoscope — an instrument normally used in the medical examination of ears — and enables highly accurate diagnoses. The method is described in the journal EBioMedicine.
"Using this method, health personnel can diagnose middle ear infections with the same accuracy as general practitioners and pediatricians," explains Claude Laurent, researcher at the Department of Clinical Sciences at Umeå University and co-author of the article. "Since the system is cloud-based, meaning that the images can be uploaded and automatically analyzed, it provides rapid access to accurate and low-cost diagnoses in developing countries."
Images of eardrums, taken with a digital otoscope connected to a smartphone, were compared to high-resolution images in an archive and automatically categorized according to predefined visual features associated with five diagnostic groups.
Tests showed that the automatically generated diagnoses based on images taken with a commercial video-otoscope had an accuracy of 80.6%, while an accuracy of 78.7% was achieved for images captured on-site with a low cost custom-made video-otoscope. This high accuracy can be compared with the 64-80% accuracy of general practitioners and pediatricians using traditional otoscopes for diagnosis.
"This method has great potential to ensure accurate diagnoses of ear infections in countries where such opportunities are not available at present. Since the method is both easy and cheap to use, it enables rapid and reliable diagnoses of a very common childhood illness," adds Laurent.
Image shows low-cost custom-made video-otoscope that can be connected to a smartphone to diagnose middle ear infections.