A Tool Made for Pandemics
This kind of diagnostic support is critical, particularly during pandemics such as COVID-19, noted Dr. Meyer, who’s also an associate professor of otolaryngology at UW.
Explore This IssueNovember 2020
“The pandemic wasn’t even a consideration when we started this process,” she said. “Before it hit, performing endoscopy to detect laryngeal abnormalities was a daily in-office procedure, just like listening to someone’s heart. But endoscopy has become a procedure that could be fraught with significant danger to the physician and the caregiving team. [That makes] the ability to actually acoustically follow, not the visual signal of the voice but the acoustic signal of the voice via telemedicine, very powerful.”
Refinements are still needed, Dr. Meyer acknowledged, but machine learning is far superior to previous methods for analyzing vocal disorders. “We have tons of acoustic and vocal tests, but none of them are very useful,” she said. “Whether it’s jitter, shimmer, or any other myriad artifacts we struggle with, none of it has panned out despite their continued use in the clinic [J Voice. 2017;31:382.e15-382.e26]. We’re very hopeful our approach will become that elusive, accurate vocal test with an actionable snapshot of the acoustic signature that can be followed very accurately over time, much like an EKG or a pulmonary function test. This kind of telemedicine-based approach will become critical during the continuing pandemic, where we just don’t have the same access to patients we’ve had in the past.”
Looking ahead, Dr. Bur said that machine learning has the potential to be a truly transformative technology in otolaryngology. But that trajectory depends in part on datasets. “The more data that you have, the more powerful these tools become,” he said. “If you think about an individual clinician who may treat a few thousand patients throughout their career, that’s one thing. But with machine learning, you can incorporate data from millions of patients in an algorithm. That opens up a whole new level of potential discernment, speed, and accuracy.”
Nikki Kean and David Bronstein are freelance medical writers based in New Jersey.