Simplifying Science

A Novel Kind of Dr. App-ointment

It took me years to be able to look inside a kid’s ear, see fluid behind the ear drum, and determine whether bacteria might be growing back there. What sounds like an easy task, at least after years of medical school and training, often is not: ear canals can be packed with wax, making it impossible to see the drum, or they can belong to squirmy kids whipping their heads back and forth while the pediatrician tries, ever so gently, to sneak a peek. Even when the ear drum is easy to see, it’s not always completely obvious which infections need treating and which do not.

All of this explains my skepticism about an app that uses the phone plus a homemade paper funnel to replace the pediatrician’s exam. Now don’t get me wrong, I am all in favor of just about anything that saves parents an unnecessary visit to the doctor’s office. The cost of that visit – not just the fee but the lost work time and aggravation, too – is money well-saved. But I sure do hope the app comes with some parental education, if not a list of warnings. The more medicine is outsourced to parents at home, the higher the likelihood that parents don’t make the right diagnosis. And I fear the guilt of a missed illness, not to mention the bigger downstream complications.

That said, if it really works, this app will be awesome… even for doctors.


Middle ear infections, which are detected by fluid buildup in the ear canal, are the most common reason for pediatric visits. Some 2 million kids every year have these infections, but beyond signs of discomfort or sometimes a fever, it’s hard to know at home what may be happening. And left unattended, such infections could cause serious complications, including hearing loss and meningitis. A general physician, either in the emergency room or in a regular office, would only have an otoscope — which can spot fluid buildup in the ear — to make an assessment, but these devices …READ MORE