Medical alert systems have been around for some time. Often, they’re wearable devices that can detect when you fall, and alert emergency personnel if it senses you aren’t responding. But what happens if you aren’t wearing a device, or if you aren’t experiencing any triggering signs or symptoms of a medical emergency at all?
In the future, your home’s voice assistant may be able to recognize when you’re having a heart attack by listening in for critical indicators like abnormal breathing and gasping sounds.
That’s according to researchers at the University of Washington who found that around half of people experiencing a heart attack made sounds known as agonal breathing. The group of researchers developed an early stage artificial-intelligence tool that could be baked into smart speakers or smartphones to listen out for warning signs.
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The technology could then be used to alert emergency personnel, the researchers said. The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal NPJ Digital Medicine on Wednesday.
“We envision a contactless system that works by continuously and passively monitoring the bedroom for an agonal breathing event, and alerts anyone nearby to come provide CPR,” said Shyam Gollakota, who co-authored the research and works as an associate professor at the University of Washington.
The researchers gathered 162 clips of the abnormal breathing patterns from recorded 911 calls. They found the sounds could be detected by a wide array of smart devices including Amazon Alexa, an iPhone 5s and Samsung Galaxy S4.
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“It’s sort of a guttural gasping noise, and its uniqueness makes it a good audio biomarker to use to identify if someone is experiencing a cardiac arrest,” said Jacob Sunshine, an assistant professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine at the UW School of Medicine. “This kind of breathing happens when a patient experiences really low oxygen levels.”
The tool, which the team says could be a downloadable app, works 97% percent of the time. An April 2019 study found that a majority of out-of-hospital cardiac arrests occur when people are alone in their bedrooms or living rooms.
Still, there’s more work and research to be done before the heart attack detecting technology is commercialized.
“We don’t want to alert either emergency services or loved ones unnecessarily, so it’s important that we reduce our false positive rate,” said Justin Chan, a doctoral student who first authored the research.
The next step is for the technology to pass through Sound Life Sciences, a Seattle-based startup that builds medical software for mobile phones and smart speakers. Gollakota is Sound Life Science’s CEO.
Some wearable tech devices can already detect irregular heartbeats. Apple released an FDA-cleared ECG app that works with the Apple Watch Series 4 in 2018. While it may spot a heart problem, experts say more work is needed to tell if using wearable technology to screen for heart problems really helps.
Follow Dalvin Brown on Twitter: @Dalvin_Brown.