Do you have 10 minutes to breathe for Covid-19 research?

Smartphones could monitor rate and quality of breath in people with Covid or recovering

Taking part in a new research project on Covid-19 could be as simple as breathing next to your phone for a few minutes. The project, led by a team at University College Dublin and St Vincent's University Hospital, is finding out how smartphones could monitor the rate and quality of breath in people with Covid-19 or recovering from the disease.

"One of the challenges of Covid-19 is making sure that people with the infection can stay out of hospital if they don't need to be there, and that the clinical team looking after them can monitor them at home and readmit them to hospital if they need to," says Prof Madeleine Lowery, who is leading the project with Dr Emer Doheny and Dr Silke Ryan. "Our research is looking at how to better monitor people's symptoms remotely, when they are isolating or recovering at home, so that clinicians can know how they are doing."

The Covid-19 Respiration Study, funded under Science Foundation Ireland’s Covid-19 Rapid Response programme, is recruiting people from anywhere in the world over the age of 18 who currently have a Covid-19 infection, who are recovering from the disease or “controls” who have never been diagnosed with it.

The goal is to develop software that can measure the rate and quality of breathing when a person breathes into the microphone of their smartphone, says Lowery, an investigator with the Insight SFI Research Centre for Data Analytics and the Neuromuscular Systems Research Group at UCD. The key, she says, is capturing an objective measurement.


“Patients with Covid-19 who are at home can be asked to report themselves whether they feel breathless, and we want to develop a more objective way to monitor that,” she says. “We have already shown that we can measure the rate of someone’s breathing accurately by recording their breaths using the microphone on a smartphone. Now we want to capture more breathing patterns from people who have been diagnosed with Covid-19 and those who have not.”

New algorithm

Features such as the inhale, the exhale, the length and the number of breaths are relatively easy to measure this way, notes Lowery, and the new algorithm aims to analyse these and other breath qualities and map them to the person’s physiology or health.

The project is also linking in with the existing app PatientMPower, used by Irish hospitals, analysing the data to see if a change in a patient’s breathing rate or sounds could be used in combination with oxygen saturation levels to monitor patients’ recovery and predict any deterioration in symptoms.

Lowery hopes the results of the study, which will finish in April, will help the team to develop a future medical device or app to help doctors monitor patients with Covid-19 and perhaps even other conditions too. “We are working with respiratory teams to explore how these methods could be used to monitor patients with chronic lung issues.”

For the coming months, though, the focus is on gathering more breath sounds and patterns from people who have been diagnosed with Covid-19 at any point, and those who have never been diagnosed. “We are inviting anyone who is over 18 and who can spare 10 minutes to record their breathing into their phone to take part.”

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Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation