Chris Netherton

Chris Netherton

Managing Director, Microtest

I have recently been catching up with some of the fascinating work that is being done in the new field of Vocal Biomarkers. This has the potential to become a hugely valuable diagnostic tool.

Charles Marmar, who is a specialist in Psychiatry based at New York University, has spent some years conducting research into how patients’ voices change when they are suffering from PTSD. There is no blood test available for this condition, and when asked questions people often feel ashamed to admit to their full symptoms, and as a result it can go underdiagnosed.

The brilliant aspect of Vocal Biomarkers is that they pick up small variations in the tone of someone’s voice, regardless of the actual words they are speaking. As a result, research is now well advanced on a vocal test that could help to diagnose PTSD.

At the same time, Mayo Clinic in the USA has teamed up with an Israeli company called Beyond Verbal who specialise in the analysis of people’s non-verbal voice patterns. They are aiming to develop a smartphone app which could use Vocal Biomarker technology for the early detection of coronary artery disease. It is believed that the tightness in the chest caused by the disease leads to a predictable pattern of changes to a patient’s voice – many of which would not be detectable to the human ear.

Sonde Health is another US company that is developing a voice analysis app as a diagnostic tool. They believe that Vocal Biomarkers could play a role in detecting depression, respiratory and cardiovascular disease, concussion and Parkinson’s. The company commented that:

“We are developing the technology platform to extract clinically meaningful health information from everyday voice interactions people have on a range of devices they already own. The analysis does not require the content of the speech to be retained, and can readily support the strong security and privacy features users demand with regard to potentially sensitive health information.”

What I find so exciting about this whole approach is that it makes possible the early detection of serious illnesses, at a point when a patient may well not be consciously aware of any symptoms. It is also very easy to administer and non-invasive for the patient.

Imagine a situation in the future where conducting a voice test is as commonplace as taking someone’s temperature or measuring their blood pressure. So many people are routinely using intelligent personal assistants like Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant and many more which in theory could be monitoring a user’s health as they actively get on with their daily routine. Voice test results could be instantly recorded on the patient’s electronic medical record, which would make it possible to analyse the results of regular voice tests conducted over a period of time, to highlight any changes in their Vocal Biomarkers.

This is another area where the clever application of information technology is leading to the creation of brilliant new medical tools – innovations that wouldn’t have been thought possible only a few years ago.


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