Though smartphone apps are technically not clinical laboratory tools, anatomic pathologists and medical laboratory scientists (MLSs) may be interested to learn how health information technology (HIT), machine learning, and smartphone apps are being used to assess different aspects of individuals’ health, independent of trained healthcare professionals.
The issue that the Cedars Sinai researchers were investigating is the accuracy of patient self-reporting. Because poop can be more complicated than meets the eye, when asked to describe their bowel movements patients often find it difficult to be specific. Thus, use of a smartphone app that enables patients to accurately assess their stools in cases where watching the function of their digestive tract is relevant to their diagnoses and treatment would be a boon to precision medicine treatments of gastroenterology diseases.
“This app takes out the guesswork by using AI—not patient input—to process the images (of bowel movements) taken by the smartphone,” said gastroenterologist Mark Pimentel, MD (above), Executive Director of Cedars-Sinai’s Medically Associated Science and Technology (MAST) program and principal investigator of the study, in a news release. “The mobile app produced more accurate and complete descriptions of constipation, diarrhea, and normal stools than a patient could, and was comparable to specimen evaluations by well-trained gastroenterologists in the study.” (Photo copyright: Cedars-Sinai.)
Pros and Cons of Bristol Stool Scale
In their paper, the scientists discussed the Bristol Stool Scale (BSS), a traditional diagnostic tool for identifying stool forms into seven categories. The seven types of stool are:
Type 1: Separate hard lumps, like nuts (difficult to pass).
Type 2: Sausage-shaped, but lumpy.
Type 3: Like a sausage, but with cracks on its surface.
Type 4: Like a sausage or snake, smooth and soft (average stool).
Type 5: Soft blobs with clear cut edges.
Type 6: Fluffy pieces with ragged edges, a mushy stool (diarrhea).
Type 7: Watery, no solid pieces, entirely liquid (diarrhea).
Thus, according to the researchers, AI algorithms can help with diagnosis by systematically doing the assessments for the patients, News Medical reported.
30,000 Stool Images Train New App
To conduct their study, the Cedars-Sinai researchers tested an AI smartphone app developed by Dieta Health. According to Health IT Analytics, employing AI trained on 30,000 annotated stool images, the app characterizes digital images of bowel movements using five parameters:
“The app used AI to train the software to detect the consistency of the stool in the toilet based on the five parameters of stool form, We then compared that with doctors who know what they are looking at,” Pimentel told Healio.
AI Assessments Comparable to Doctors, Better than Patients
According to Health IT Analytics, the researchers found that:
AI assessed the stool comparable to gastroenterologists’ assessments on BSS, consistency, fragmentation, and edge fuzziness scores.
AI and gastroenterologists had moderate-to-good agreement on volume.
AI outperformed study participant self-reports based on the BSS with 95% accuracy, compared to patients’ 89% accuracy.
Additionally, the AI outperformed humans in specificity and sensitivity as well:
Specificity (ability to correctly report a negative result) was 27% higher.
Sensitivity (ability to correctly report a positive result) was 23% higher.
“A novel smartphone application can determine BSS and other visual stool characteristics with high accuracy compared with the two expert gastroenterologists. Moreover, trained AI was superior to subject self-reporting of BSS. AI assessments could provide more objective outcome measures for stool characterization in gastroenterology,” the Cedars-Sinai researchers wrote in their paper.
“In addition to improving a physician’s ability to assess their patients’ digestive health, this app could be advantageous for clinical trials by reducing the variability of stool outcome measures,” said gastroenterologist Ali Rezaie, MD, study co-author and Medical Director of Cedars-Sinai’s GI Motility Program in the news release.
The researchers plan to seek FDA review of the mobile app.
Opportunity for Clinical Laboratories
Anatomic pathologists and clinical laboratory leaders may want to reach out to referring gastroenterologists to find out how they can help to better serve gastro patients. As the Cedars-Sinai study suggests, AI smartphone apps can perform BSS assessments as good as or better than humans and may be useful tools in the pursuit of precision medicine treatments for patient suffering from painful gastrointestinal disorders.
It may not be a boom trend, but more non-invasive diagnostic tests are coming to market as clinical laboratory tests that use breath as the specimen
Here’s a development that reinforces two important trends in diagnostics: non-invasive clinical laboratory assays and patient-self testing. Recently, the FDA expanded the clearance of one diagnostic test to allow patients to collect their own breath specimen at home under the supervision of the test manufacturer’s telehealth team.
Recently, however, the FDA announced it has “expanded the approval of the company’s 13C-Spirulina Gastric Emptying Breath Test (GEBT) to now include ‘at home’ administration under virtual supervision of Cairn Diagnostics.”
Self-administration of at-home tests by patients guided virtually by healthcare professionals is a major advancement in telehealth. But will this virtual-healthcare method be popular with both patients and their physicians?
Clinical Laboratory Diagnostics and Telehealth
Spurring a far greater acceptance of telehealth among patients and healthcare providers is one of the many ways the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted healthcare.
“Telehealth, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, has emerged as a preferred option for healthcare providers,” noted Kerry Bush, President and COO of Cairn Diagnostics, in a 2021 news release.
Cairn’s GEBT detects gastroparesis, a disease which, according to the NIH National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), affects 50 people in every 100,000. According to the CDC, it is also sometimes a complication of diabetes. Symptoms include nausea, heartburn, bloating, a feeling of fullness long after eating a meal, vomiting, belching, and pain in the upper abdomen, the NIDDK notes.
In people with gastroparesis—sometimes called “delayed gastric emptying”—muscles that normally move food from the stomach to the small intestine do not work as they should, and the food remains in the stomach for too long. The traditional diagnostic tool used to diagnose gastroparesis is scintigraphy. The patient consumes a meal that has radioactive material mixed in and the digestion process is observed using a nuclear medicine camera as the material is eliminated through the bowels.
Virtual Telehealth GEBT versus Scintigraphy
The telehealth process for Cairn Diagnostic’s Gastric Emptying Breath Test (GEBT) differs significantly from traditional scintigraphy testing. Once a physician prescribes the test, Cairn’s telehealth team contacts the patient to describe the virtual process. The team then ships the at-home test kit to the patient. To complete the testing, Cairn provides the patient with a web-based link to a secure audio/video platform.
During administration of the GEBT, a Cairn technician coaches the patient and supervises via video. Once the test is complete, the patient returns the breath samples to the CLIA-certified clinical laboratory by overnight courier. The test results are sent to the prescribing physician within 24-48 hours after the lab receives the samples.
Discovering New Uses for Breath as a Specimen for Clinical Laboratory Testing
For obvious reasons, patients prefer diagnostics that use specimens obtained noninvasively. GEBT is the latest in a growing list of diagnostic tests that use breath as a specimen.
For example, at Johns Hopkins clinicians employ breath testing to diagnose several conditions, including:
Each of these tests involves the patient consuming a particular substance, technicians capturing breath samples at certain intervals, and clinical laboratory personnel analyzing the samples to look for indicators of disease or intolerance.
New Types of Breath Tests
Breath samples are commonly used to diagnose gastrointestinal issues, but researchers also are seeking methods of using them to diagnose and monitor respiratory conditions as well.
In a recent study published in Nature Nanotechnology, scientists explored how breath can be used to monitor respiratory disease, noting that although breath contains numerous volatile metabolites, it is rarely used clinically because biomarkers have not been identified.
Indeed, the search for new ways to use breath as a biological sample is being pursued by numerous groups and organizations. Owlstone Medical in the UK, for example, is developing breathalyzer tests for the detection of cancer as well as inflammatory and infectious disease.
“Whilst we are still in this discovery stage it is time to refine our study designs so that we can make progress towards tailored clinical application,” they wrote. “Breathomics is perhaps at the ‘end of the beginning’ for asthma at least; it has a ‘sexy’ name, some promising and consistent findings, and the key questions are at least being recognized.”
Better for Patients, Clinicians, and Clinical Laboratories
Virtual telehealth tests, ordered by physicians, administered at home, and interpreted in CLIA-certified clinical laboratories, is a trend pathologists may want to watch carefully, along with the development of other tests that use human breath as the specimen.
Less invasive, more personalized diagnostic tools that can be administered at home are better for patients. When those tools also provide detailed information, clinicians can make better decisions regarding care. Clinical laboratories that approach the use of at-home tests creatively, and which can accurately and quickly process these new types of tests, may have a market advantage and an opportunity to expand and grow.