Everyone knows that one of the main presenting symptoms of COVID-19 is a cough. But what kind of cough, exactly?
There’s a smartphone app under development and about to start clinical testing that is meant to answer that question. The idea behind it is that “coughs aren’t all the same,” says Dr. Daniel Karlin, a physician and CEO of HealthMode, a health-tech startup that is looking to enroll participants in a test of its CoughMode software.
Users who install the app — whose website urges users to “Donate your cough to science!” — can start it when they begin to cough and upload the sound to HealthMode, which will analyze it for characteristics such as volume, duration and frequency. Their health will then be monitored with weekly questionnaires. By matching cough sounds with other clinical data, Karlin says, the company hopes to build a database that can be used to make diagnostic predictions and chart the course of the disease.
The theory is that a cough caused by coronavirus, which typically infects the lungs, is different from other kinds, such as those caused by an upper-respiratory infection or hay fever or inhaling dust. “We’re not sure yet what we’re looking for,” he says. “Probably it sounds more like pneumonia” — but that’s what the research is meant to determine.
The data will be secure, Karlin emphasizes, and the app will not run in the background or monitor other people nearby. Asked about privacy concerns, Karlin, who is also a psychiatrist on the faculty at Tufts Medical Center, said: “We haven’t turned on any contact tracing or GPS at this stage to encourage users to participate without worrying about excess threats to privacy.”
If the project is successful in identifying coronavirus infections, users may get alerts if the program detects a possibly troubling pattern to their coughing.
HealthMode’s apps, which were developed before the coronavirus outbreak, are typically used by pharmaceutical companies and laboratories conducting clinical trials or public health surveys. The company has a companion app to CoughMode that looks for symptoms of coronavirus in the gastrointestinal tract, which accounts for an unknown fraction of infections and may be present with or without respiratory symptoms. It works by uploading pictures of the user’s stool.
HealthMode is seeking volunteers to enroll, at no charge, in the monitoring program, at the website linked above. The idea, Karlin says, is to provide a simple way to participate in COVID-19 research, with the possible benefit of getting an alert to possible symptoms should they develop.
“Seeing New York City the way it is,” says Karlin, who also practices at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, “everyone is asking, ‘Is there something we can do?’ This is something we can do.”
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