Hidden heart problems may be discovered through your voice, according to a new medical research paper published this month in the Journal of the American Heart Association. A vocal biomarker, analyzed using artificial intelligence, could help identify those at a high risk of heart failure without requiring a physical exam.
The study examined how audio indicators in someone’s voice could reveal information about their health, specifically their risk for congestive heart failure. Researchers collected voice 20-second recordings over five years, ending up with 10,583 patients with chronic conditions registered to a call center in Israel. The scientists identified 223 “acoustic features” from the recordings and developed a biomarker to test for potential heart failure on a group of 2,267 of patients. The researchers consistently found a correlation between the vocal biomarker and the subsequent hospitalization of the study participant over the next couple of years. The exact biology isn’t clear, according to the study, but the vocal biomarker might result from changes in the vagus nerve, which helps control the heart as well as voice production.
“The main novel finding of the current study is that noninvasive voice signal characteristics are associated with adverse clinical outcome among patients with symptomatic heart failure,” the study authors wrote in their report. “The association of the vocal biomarker with poor survival persisted after adjustment for relevant confounders and was consistent in each risk subset analyzed, suggesting an independent association.”
The benefits of analyzing voices for health risks are apparent. It’s noninvasive, can be performed remotely, and don’t require a lot of time to complete. The study’s authors were quick to point out that the vocal test is not a replacement for in-person medical exams and the standard tests, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for vocal health tests. Using the vocal biomarker, even as just one factor in assessing congestive heart failure risk, can help doctors better determine the best treatment plan for their patients.
That’s especially true right now when the COVID-19 pandemic is keeping most people at home while straining healthcare systems worldwide. Distance diagnosing using the vocal biomarker will help doctors decide if it’s worth the risk and the resources to treat potential heart problems in-person right now. Some of the study’s authors also work at voice tech startup Vocalis, which is applying similar technology to coronavirus projects. Vocalis is working with the Israeli Ministry of Defense to provide a mobile app to people infected with the virus to gather voice samples and see how the disease affects vocal biomarkers. The company is also working with medical researchers to collect voice samples from the public to build a database of voice data that could help isolate the vocal indications of COVID-19 infection. This study is only one step to melding vocal biomarker tests to digital triage tools for determining if a doctor’s visit is needed.
“This is the first study to document a relationship between a vocal biomarker and adverse outcome among [congestive heart failure] patients including mortality and future hospitalizations,” the authors concluded. “Vocal signal analysis is a noninvasive biomarker that can assist healthcare providers with individual patient risk stratification. Together with other digital health tools such as virtual visits and home monitoring, it holds the potential to assist in providing quality care in rural, remote communities.”