I’m intrigued by an Australian company, ResApp that has developed a smartphone app to diagnose respiratory diseases by analyzing the sound signatures of coughs. The company has just completed an oversubscribed fundraising round, so I guess I’m not the only one who finds it interesting.
I interviewed the CEO, Dr. Tony Keating via email, and his answers are below. Meanwhile, check out the demo for their consumer-facing product.
Q1. What unmet need does ResApp serve? How big is the need?
ResApp is developing digital health solutions for the diagnosis and management of respiratory disease (e.g. pneumonia, bronchiolitis, asthma, COPD). We estimate that every year more than 700 million doctor visits result in the diagnosis of a respiratory disease within the OECD, in the US the number is 125 million visits. Pneumonia in particular costs the US hospital system $10.5 billion annually. The World Health Organization estimates that nearly 1 million children die of pneumonia in the developing world every year, with a large portion attributed to the lack of availability of a low cost diagnostic tool.
Current diagnosis of these disease is costly and time consuming (consider that an x-ray for pneumonia diagnosis in the US costs more than $200 and can take up to an hour in an emergency department), and there are also many areas where current diagnostic tools are unavailable. Our initial focus is to provide an accurate remote diagnostic capability to telehealth where even the stethoscope is not available to physicians.
Q2. How does the system work?
ResApp’s technology is based on the premise that cough and breathing sounds carry vital information on the state of the respiratory tract. We use machine learning algorithms that analyze the sound of a patient’s cough. Our algorithms are able to match signatures that are within a patient’s cough with a disease diagnosis. An analogy might be how speech recognition algorithms match speech to text, or how Shazam’s algorithms look for signatures in music to identify the artist and title.
Q3. Who came up with the idea? How?
The technology was developed by Dr Udantha Abeyratne and his team at The University of Queensland. Dr Abeyratne and his team have been engaged in the R&D of the technology since 2009. They were initially funded by a grant from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to investigate if mobile phones could be used to diagnose pneumonia in the developing world. The initial idea was to take the latest advances in speech recognition technology and couple them with physicians’ in-depth knowledge of cough and breathing sounds to develop a diagnostic test that could be delivered at low cost to patients in the developing world.
Q4. You started as a telehealth app but are now looking to serve physicians for in-person visits, such as in the emergency room. Why?
Our focus remains on providing a remote diagnostic test to be used alongside a telehealth consultation. However we have seen great interest from physicians for use in in-person visits, such as in the ER. The potential of our technology to provide an instant and highly accurate differential diagnosis of respiratory disease is seen as a way to greatly improve the diagnosis and treatment of their patients. In addition, healthcare payers could potentially realize significant cost savings versus traditional diagnostic tests (such as chest x-ray).
Q5. The app doesn’t require any additional hardware. Is a smartphone really good enough to serve as a medical device?
Our clinical study, run out of two major Australian hospitals, has demonstrated very high levels of accuracy (both sensitivity and specificity) in diagnosis from recordings taken using the microphone on the smartphone. We are simply using the smartphone as an efficient platform for delivering a clinical-quality medical diagnostic device. The FDA has approved over 100 mobile medical apps, including a number that diagnose a disease.
Q6. Your initial focus is on diagnostics. Do you also plan to offer tools for ongoing management?
Yes, our recent fundraising allows us to accelerate our plans to develop tools for ongoing management of the chronic respiratory diseases asthma and COPD. We see an opportunity to potentially measure the severity of these conditions on a more regular basis than what is done today. We also see the opportunity to deliver these management tools to all smartphone users who suffer from these conditions, without the need to purchase additional hardware (or perhaps also just as importantly, without the need to carry a second device).
Q7. What geographic markets are you serving? Are you worried you are spreading yourself to thin?
Our focus is the US telehealth market, although our recent funding extends our US market into the in-person use by a physician. In both of these instances, we are still providing the diagnostic result to the physician, not directly to the patient, so our clinical studies and FDA submissions are essentially unchanged. We have recently seen growth in telehealth, in particular in Europe and Australia and will be working through the regulatory process in those regions in parallel to the US regulatory process.
Q8. What’s to prevent someone else from copying what you are doing?
The university has filed a patent application (which ResApp has a worldwide exclusive license to) describing the method and apparatus of respiratory disease diagnosis using sound. The machine learning algorithms that we use also require a significant amount of high quality clinical data, which we have generated from our multiple clinical studies.
Q9. Anything else to add?
ResApp’s technology, originally developed by a world-class team at one of the world’s leading universities, provides an opportunity to deliver a clinical-quality medical diagnostic test for respiratory disease to everybody who has a smartphone in their pocket. While we’ve talked a lot about the opportunities in the US, Europe and Australia, we must remember that there are also billions of people in the developing world who do not have access to quality healthcare. We have recently partnered with a leading global humanitarian organization to help bring a high accuracy, low cost diagnostic test for pneumonia to those people and to try to reduce the number of children who die from pneumonia and other respiratory diseases every year in the developing world.