World Cup penalty shoot-out prompted tech breakthrough to help patients find their voice

A World Cup penalty shoot-out led to a breakthrough in the care of patients who have lost the ability to speak.

Wednesday, 19th May 2021, 12:30 pm

Intensive care specialist Dr Shondipon Laha was doing his ward round at Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust during the World Cup in 2018 when a patient started

mouthing something at him.

The patient had undergone a tracheostomy – an incision in the windpipe to help him to breathe – which meant he was unable to speak.

Nathan Armstrong, from Oswaldtwistle near Blackburn, has suffered from paralysis of his vocal cords since he was a child. He used the lipreading SRAVI app while in hospital.

“He wanted me to move out of the way of the TV so he could watch England taking penalties,” Dr Laha said.

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Dr Laha began to search online for lipreading software and came across a technology company, Liopa, that had undertaken years of research in this area.

This led to a partnership between the trust and Liopa, supported by the Innovation Agency, the NHS organisation supporting innovation.

They collaborated to develop an app called SRAVI – Speech Recognition for the Voice-Impaired – that can accurately lip-read a patient using a mobile phone camera.

The information is referred to a library of common phrases and the correct phrase is sent back to the phone which then ‘speaks’ it.

The app has been used by around 20 intensive care unit patients with accuracy of greater than 90 per cent in a six-month trial, says Dr Laha, consultant in Critical Care Medicine and

Anaesthesia.

And Covid-19 has meant that speech recognition has become a bigger problem because many patients undergo a tracheostomy as part of their treatment for the virus.

Dr Laha said: “Not being able to speak is very frustrating for the patient, and for staff. We can deal with patients’ needs much more rapidly and the rehabilitation process is much quicker

and smoother if we can improve communication. SRAVI is absolutely fundamental to the successful treatment of patients who have been extremely ill.”

Nathan Armstrong, from Oswaldtwistle near Blackburn, has suffered from paralysis of his vocal cords since he was a child. He underwent a tracheostomy at the Royal Preston Hospital

which improved his quality of life but presented communications challenges, so he used SRAVI for around three months to communicate with nurses.

He said: “I am very satisfied with how accurately SRAVI returned the phrases I was communicating while I was in ICU. If you have been on a ventilator you will have been asleep for a

week or maybe longer – the last thing you want to do is pick up a pen and try to communicate.

“I think SRAVI will be a good way for people like me to communicate.”

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