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‘Electronic Nose’ Sniffs Out Asthma


5 Star

‘Electronic Nose’ Sniffs Out Asthma

Our Review Summary

The new test looks for volatile organic compounds that are presumably uniquely exhaled by people with asthma. When used in combination with a somewhat standard test, the new process may provide somewhat greater ability to diagnose asthma. The story rightly notes the study was conducted in a small number of subjects and is far from definitive. Would that more stories could resist the temptation to gush about new medical gadgets before their benefits are proven.  


Why This Matters

Asthma is a relatively common disease that appears to be increasing in its frequency. In its classic form, asthma is relatively easy to diagnose. However many patients present with atypical symptoms and require more extensive testing, including provocative testing with methacholine, for an accurate diagnosis. An easy-to-use, non-invasive and definitive test would be an advantage for many patients .


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?


Since this device is experimental, we can accept the fact that the story didn’t put a specific price tag on the technology. The story did note that cost might limit initial use of the device.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


The story tells us the percentage of asthma patients who were correctly diagnosed by the electronic nose, fractional exhaled nitric oxide, and spirometry. It provided this data in absolute terms and didn’t muddy the waters with relative comparisons of the three techniques. Although the study data by itself might suggest that the new device is superior to the other methods, the comments from the expert sources put the results in the appropriate context. They make it clear that we can’t tell yet whether this technology represents a better option than existing techniques.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

Although there appears to be little risk of harm from the new testing procedure itself, the story makes no mention of the downside that can accompany a faulty diagnosis–whether a false positive or negative. False positive tests (diagnosing asthma when the patient has another disease) and false negatives (failing to diagnose asthma) can have significant consequences. A brief comment on the potential harms associated with a faulty test would have been helpful.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?


The story did a good job of describing what happened in the study being discussed. It notes that the "electronic nose" device was pitted against other diagnostic techniques to compare their accuracy for confirming physician-diagnosed asthma. Importantly, independent sources emphasized that this was a small study looking at patients with one particular type of asthma. They noted that much more research would be needed to prove that the device is effective in a broad range of patients. 

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


No disease-mongering in this story.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?


The story cites two independent sources and identifies their affiliations.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?


The story discusses current methods for diagnosing asthma including the physical exam, spirometry, and nitric oxide tests.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


Although the story never explicitly states that the device being discussed is experimental, comments from the experts make it pretty clear that the technology is still in development.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


The story explained in reasonable detail how the device differs from traditional diagnostic methods. The story could have done a bit more to explain that "electronic nose" technology has been in development for quite some time and is already in use in other fields (i.e. explosives detection). However, the story’s description of the device was pretty restrained and it didn’t try to hype the technology as "new."

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?


It’s clear that this story wasn’t based exclusively on a news release.

Total Score: 9 of 10 Satisfactory


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