Cell tool detects ear infections

New cell tool detects ear infections

Published 06-02-2017
Last Updated09-01-2020

A new cell phone attachment allows doctors to diagnose ear infections without touching a patient's ear.
Fever, irritability, and ear pain. Most parents are familiar with the classic signs of an ear infection, and almost all have forced their sick child out of bed to get to a doctor’s office only to be told that rest and fluids are all they need to recover.

Luckily new technology may make the office visit a thing of the past. With a new mobile otoscope it is now possible to diagnose ear infections with your smartphone.

Just attach the device to your phone, snap a picture, and email it with notes about symptoms for diagnosis. If the infection is bad enough to warrant antibiotics, a doctor can send a prescription request to a nearby pharmacy.

“It’s going to make it so that people can access care from non-traditional settings,” says Erik Douglas, CEO of Cellscope, the company behind the mobile otoscope.
Cellscope is a California-based mobile health start-up that aims to create a “digital first-aid kit” for in-home diagnosis. Cellscope started in 2006 in University of California Berkeley lab which focused on mobile microscopy.

Stemming from that lab is Cellscope’s otoscope, a digital microscope that clips onto a standard smartphone and takes and stores photos of the middle ear. Using the bright LED light from the smartphone, the otoscope is able to get a picture that is similar to what a doctor sees from a traditional otoscope.

Douglas says that the company hopes that the mobile otoscope will soon hit the mass market, much like modern ear thermometers that are now for sale in most drugstores. Cellscope is well on its way to that goal. It separated from the Berkeley lab in 2010 and has since raised $1 million in seed funding.

“Because we’re letting the phone do all the hard work, the actual product will cost in the range of $50-60,” he says. With standard video otoscopes costing over $1,000, the mobile attachment is a steal.


The product is particularly useful for those in rural areas. While many regions of the world have little access to basic medical care, they often have access to mobile phone networks. The otoscope has already been tested in pilot telemedicine projects in rural India, where it has been used to diagnose ear infections in areas without medical access.

It’s a field that scientists at The University of California in Berkeley have been studying for years.

A 2009 study by researchers at the university found that mobile phone-based clinical microscopy could provide an “important tool for disease diagnosis and screening, particularly in the developing world and rural areas where laboratory facilities are scarce but mobile phone infrastructure is extensive.”

Jody Ranck, eHealth consultant and author of "Connected Health:  How mobiles, cloud and big data will reinvent healthcare," says that mobile phones can change the way healthcare is delivered in developing countries.

“The field is expanding rapidly due to the ubiquity of cell phones in developing countries, and efforts to strengthen healthcare systems are putting mobiles forward as a central tool,” he says.


Mobile health diagnosis is a growing field that is expected to expand even more in coming years. According to a study by tech research firm Juniper Research, mobile health app downloads are expected to reach 142 million downloads by 2016.

But it’s still emerging, and Ranck says that major obstacles include a lack of data into cost effectiveness, difficulties in cooperation amongst stakeholders, and “fear from some in the health care sector.”

Still, the scope of mobile phone diagnosis goes well beyond ear infections. Cellscope already has plans to expand its product offering to cover devices that can diagnose throat and skin ailments. For Douglas, the possibilities are endless.

“The field is changing rapidly and new tools are always becoming available,” he says. “You never know where it is going to go.”


Mobile phones are being used for more than just ear infection diagnosis. Current and developing products include:

  • Microscopes that attach to your phone to diagnose throat and skin ailments

  • Blood and saliva analysis via a mobile phone’s touch screen

  • Wearable devices with sensors in fabric, contact lenses or implants to monitor vital signs, glucose levels, and other physiological signs

  • SMS reminders for diabetes patients to take medication, visit the doctor, and check glucose levels

  • AIDS test results delivered by SMS where traditional mail service is unreliable

  • Data collection tools that allow for real-time epidemiological surveillance

  • iPhone-enabled blood pressure cuffs


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