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A smartphone app has been developed to instantly identify common respiratory disorders.

The University of Queensland (UQ) smartphone technology analyses a person’s cough to help diagnose respiratory disorders, like asthma, croup, pneumonia, lower respiratory tract disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and bronchiolitis.

“Coughs can be described as wet or dry, brassy or raspy, ringing or barking; they can whistle, whoop or wheeze; but experts cannot always agree on the description or how to use cough sounds for diagnosis,” UQ biomedical engineer Associate Professor Udantha Abeyratne said.

The UQ research used technologies to extract useful diagnostic characteristics from coughs, and removing the subjective elements for characterising them.

“We believe the technology can lead to earlier diagnosis and better patient outcomes throughout the world, including in remote locations with limited access to doctors,” Associate Professor Abeyratne said.

A clinical study on childhood respiratory diseases found the UQ technology had an accuracy of 81 to 97%.

Corresponding author and paediatrician Dr Paul Porter from Western Australia’s Joondalup Health Campus said it could be difficult to differentiate between respiratory disorders in children, even for experienced doctors in tertiary facilities.

“This study demonstrates how new technology, mathematical concepts, machine learning and clinical medicine can be successfully combined to produce completely new diagnostic tests using the expertise of several disciplines.”

UQ researchers trained algorithms to recognise features of coughs which were characteristic of five different respiratory diseases. The technology allowed users to report other noticeable symptoms to ensure diagnoses were as accurate as possible.

Researchers then categorised the coughs of 585 children aged between 29 days and 12 years.

Accuracy of the analyser was determined by comparing its diagnosis to one reached by a panel of paediatricians that had reviewed hospital charts and conducted all available clinical investigations.

The potential global health and economic impact of the UQ technology was phenomenal with respiratory disease the third leading cause of death, Associate Professor Abeyratne said.

The study was published in Respiratory Research.