Med thumb snoring sound wave

Of the estimated 18 million Americans suffering from sleep apnea, 85 percent are currently undiagnosed. That’s an unsettling statistic, considering the breath-obstruction disorder results in everything from chronic fatigue and high blood pressure to heart disease and diabetes. So many cases go undiagnosed, at least in part, because traditional polysomnography tests involve complex equipment and expensive overnight stays in sleep labs.

“Those are very rich tests that measure a wide array of data, but they can be hard for many to access,” says Dr. Nathaniel Watson, Professor of Neurology and co-director of the UW Medicine Sleep Center. Watson cites limited beds in sleep labs and general time constraints, as some of the myriad reasons sufferers never know their condition.

“We need to find creative ways to make assessment more possible.”

His solution: ApneaApp. Designed by Dr. Watson and his team at the University of Washington, the smartphone application employs an active sonar, similar to that employed by bats, to detect and record both soundwaves and reflections of soundwaves of sleeping individuals. The app requires no additional equipment; users simply set their phone on a bedside table.

“It assesses chest and abdominal movement, which is a reasonable surrogate of respiratory efficiency, in a contactless way,” says Dr. Watson. And it works: After studying more than 300 hours of data from more than 37 sleepers, ApneaApp proved nearly as accurate as a full-scale polysomnography test.

ApneaApp is still in the development stage and requires significant testing before a full-scale release. But Dr. Watson hopes that when it does reach the public domain, the simple tool will nudge sleep apnea sufferers to seek out help from a proper authority at an accredited institution. He also hopes his app will usher in a new level of validation for mobile health devices.

“It’s a segment that’s still so young,” he says, “And most of the current items are entertainment devices with a few health properties. But medicine is starting to embrace the mobile health movement and I want this to be a tool that helps sufferers get the treatment they need.”