Well, no. But a new device in the works could eliminate millions of doctors’ visits every year for parents whose kids are fussing and tugging at their ears.
Around 75% of children have had at least one middle ear infection (also called otitis media) by the time they are 6 years old, and this leads to 15 million doctor visits a year in the U.S. During these visits, pediatricians peer into kids’ ears with a device called an otoscope, looking to see whether an infection is present.
Here’s where things get complicated. If there are signs of infection, doctors are forced to guess whether it is caused by a virus or by bacteria so that they know whether to prescribe antibiotics. Bacterial infections won’t clear up without them, but for viral infections they are completely unnecessary.
Lab tests that could let doctors know for sure what they’re dealing with take too much time and money to be worthwhile in most cases, leaving doctors with three choices.
1. Withhold antibiotics and risk letting a bacterial infection go unchecked, which can lead to complications;
2. Send the child away with no prescription, but have them come back after a few days to see whether the infection is clearing on its own, a practice doctors call “watchful waiting” (you can guess how many parents are excited about that option); or
3. (What happens most often) prescribe antibiotics even though they might not be needed, which experts say has led to the development of bugs that are impervious to the drugs.
The Remotoscope, being developed by researchers at Georgia Tech and Emory University, is a clip-on attachment and software app that turns an iPhone into an otoscope parents can use at home. The parent uses Remotoscope – employing the phone’s camera and flash – to take a picture or video of their child’s eardrum, and the app magnifies and transmits the images to a doctor’s office. This means “watchful waiting” can happen at home, and if a prescription is needed the doctor can phone it in to the pharmacy without seeing the child again.
The device is in clinical trials now (partially funded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) to see whether the images it produces will let doctors make accurate diagnoses. The results of that trial should be published by year’s end, and then further trials will be conducted to see if the remote “watchful waiting” idea works. Plans are underway to market Remotoscope to parents once the device has FDA approval.
Until it does, watchful waiting is your best option.