Impaired lung function is one of the symptoms of many chronic and temporary diseases, and is a leading cause of death. Healthcare professionals measure functional lung capacity using a device called a spirometer, that can cost thousands of dollars. This means that patients have to go to a clinical setting to get a measurement, and even this is not an option in under-developed regions of the world.

Researchers at the Ubiquitous Computing Lab at the University of Washington came up with a solution: SpiroCall. Initially, this was developed as a smartphone app called SpiroSmart. The user simply followed prompts on the screen, and the sounds of the breath are recorded and then sent to a server in the cloud for processing. The results then are sent back to app so the patient can see them. This system is being tested in the U.S., India, and Bangladesh. The researchers realized that low-income patients in many countries may not even have access to a smartphone. They determined that the same process works over ordinary cellphone and landline telephone connections. The patient can call a toll-free number, breath into the phone, and the cloud-based analytics can determine lung function just from the sounds transmitted by the phone. The researchers have found there to be no significant difference between the results from the smartphone app and the standard telephones. And their results are within 10% of the clinical spirometers, making this a useful approach.

E.F. Schumacher was an economist whose book “Small Is Beautiful” promoted the concept of “appropriate technology.” SpiroCall is one of many examples where low-cost technology can transform the healthcare and lives of people at all economic levels. It makes it affordable and practical to track a symptom remotely, and improve the treatment and outcomes for patients while reducing costs.