Sound Innovation: Physician Innovators Developing New Vocal Health Platform
Students at Carle Illinois College of Medicine are developing a new tool that could help preserve the voices of singers, teachers, and other professionals who are at increased risk for developing voice problems. It is a new platform called VOCA. It’s designed to provide an easy, non-invasive way to objectively analyze human voice quality and allow clinicians to track vocal health over time.
In the U.S., about one in 13 adults has a voice disorder, but the numbers are much higher among vocal performers and teachers. Current assessment for patients with suspected voice disorders is based on subjective evaluations that often require several steps. It starts with a self-assessment but then can advance to medical assessment including a laryngoscopy. This invasive procedure can be painful and must be done in a doctor’s office.
VOCA is set to advance vocal assessment techniques, based on an objective measure of voice quality that can be captured from virtually anywhere, without requiring an invasive procedure.
Team leader Shreya Rangarajan (CI MED Class of 2025) explains the team is creating a mobile app would allow patients with suspected or newly diagnosed voice disorders to record a voice sample and then upload the files to the cloud for data-driven analysis for purposes of diagnosis or monitoring. The VOCA system would evaluate the patient sample based on key objective metrics including fundamental frequency, shimmer, and jitter.
“The fundamental frequency is the frequency at which the vocal cords vibrate in voiced sounds. By being able to accurately detect this measurement, we are getting a better idea of how the vocal folds are behaving,” Rangarajan explained. “The challenging part about this is that we should be able to identify a primary voice disorder (in which something is physically/anatomically wrong with the voice apparatus) from a secondary voice disorder (i.e., some other organ system that is affecting the voice, such as the brain).”
Team VOCA’s design plan includes development of an algorithm to compare the metrics from the patient’s voice sample with a large voice sample database and then share the findings with the patient’s health care provider through a desktop computer application.
Rangarajan says because loss of voice can be very personal, her platform may also help patients with voice disorders recapture their sense of identity. “We hope to include educational information on vocal health within the app such that users would be able to have these resources in one designated area. Ideally, this will help users to understand how to manage their loss of voice as they recover,” Rangarajan said.
The VOCA team hopes that giving patients the ability to self-monitor with objective data will help them take control of their own health and be more accountable for performing vocal exercises that are often prescribed to treat vocal disorders. The platform could also be used by ear, nose, and throat specialists, as well as speech and language pathologists, and teachers who train vocal performers who need to monitor patient progress.
Rangarajan’s team came together around her initial idea while working with the student pre-incubator AxisMED. The newly formed start-up has since won accolades and support in some of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s most prestigious pitch competitions, including the COZAD New Venture Challenge and as part of the Illinois I-Corps Summer 2022 cohort.
VOCA Health – the team’s startup -- has applied for trademark rights, conducted market research, and Rangarajan plans to develop a working prototype of her concept as part of her Capstone Innovation project during her fourth year of medical school.
VOCA team members include medicine and customer discovery team member Michael Chen (CI MED Class of 2025); former engineering team leader Bhargav Chandaka, and UIUC undergraduate engineering students Deepak Nair (engineering lead), Yoshee Jain, and Sharayu Jang.