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Evaluating a telehealth platform to keep patients safe

Graduate Students Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences

Monday, November 23rd, 2020

Pictured Above: Andrew Exner, a PhD student in the Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences, is evaluating an artificial intelligence system that could enable patients with speech difficulties to be assessed at home.

Written by Korina Wilbert

Early this year, Andrew Exner, a PhD student in the Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences, was working with the Purdue Motor Speech Lab and the Imaging, Evaluation, and Treatment (I-EaT) of Swallowing Research Laboratory at Purdue. He was studying the motor behavior of subjects as they are coordinating speech and swallowing during social meal times. The study required subjects to be unmasked while performing tasks in the lab. When safety concerns related to COVID-19 emerged, the researched was halted, and the lab was temporarily shut down.

“It was tough,” said Exner. “We had been working on this for months, and it just ended suddenly. I was not sure what the future held.”

A new project soon arrived to his lab in the apposite field of telehealth. Today Exner is evaluating an artificial intelligence system that could enable patients with speech difficulties to be assessed in the comfort and safety of their own home. Developed by a start-up in California, the technology could enable a patient to be tested while undergoing tasks, such as speaking and reading aloud. The technology could measure speech rate and symmetry, mobility, and coordination of the facial muscles, for example. These data would be used by practitioners to identify targets for treatment or to monitor the progress of therapy.

“We know that we can measure things,” Exner said. “We want to see if this system can measure them in a similar way so that we can say if this automated diagnostic system is as effective as a human who is an expert at this.”

While there has long been a drive to research and implement telehealth for populations who have barriers to access, Exner said that the pandemic has introduced additional barriers in the provision of effective treatment. Patients with pre-existing conditions and chronic health problems are more vulnerable, and this obligates providers to adopt new methods to effectively assess concerns without increasing the risk to the patient.

“It feels good,” Exner said about the shift in focus to telehealth research. “I am encouraged to be part of a movement that is focused on medical justice. To be able to help people who are struggling in some way, that’s why I got involved in science in the first place. It’s electrifying.”