Duke University researchers develop ‘Smart Toilet’ to help track digestive health

Updated: May. 28, 2021 at 12:00 PM EDT
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DURHAM, N.C. (WBTV) - Researchers at Duke University are developing a Smart Toilet to help gastroenterologists diagnose chronic digestive issues in patients.

Associate Research Professor for Duke University Dr. Sonia Grego is one of the researchers working on the Smart Toilet Lab at the Duke University Center for Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Infectious Diseases.

“I’m working on a toilet. My friends and family, of course, laugh about that. That that’s what I’m focusing my energy on,” Dr. Grego said.

But Grego’s time isn’t being wasted. Gastroenterologists often rely on patient reporting to help diagnose chronic digestive issues. For example, Gastroenterologist Dr. Rya Kaplan of East Cooper GI says she often asks these questions of her patients.

“How often do you have a bowel movement? What’s the consistency of the bowel movement? Is it hard, loose, watery, lumpy? Is there blood in the stool?,” Dr. Kaplan explains.

She says all of those details and information can help her navigate the best treatments for her patients suffering from constipation, diarrhea, food intolerance, etc. The problem, she says, is that most of her patients do not inspect their waste that closely. Nor do many want to.

“The majority of people don’t look at their stool quite that closely so it can be a bit difficult to get that history sometimes,” Dr. Kaplan said.

Duke University researchers says the Smart Toilet uses artificial intelligence to track color,...
Duke University researchers says the Smart Toilet uses artificial intelligence to track color, consistency, and frequency of stool.(Duke University)

That is why Dr. Grego and Duke University are developing the Smart Toilet. So that patients no longer have to self-monitor and report their bowel movements. Dr. Grego says the Smart Toilet consists of artificial intelligence. Each time a patient goes to the bathroom, the technology captures a picture of the patient’s stool as it travels through the sewage system. Data is collected with each flush, the artificial intelligence analyzes it, and overtime the technology can tell what is normal and what is abnormal.

“In a world where the houses are smart, where your fridge knows you’re low on milk, when Alexa knows which music you like to play, something so important to track your health and also to detect early warnings of diseases,” Dr. Grego said.

Dr. Grego says the smart toilet technology can be retrofitted to any toilet. It would involve a one-time installation.

“All of this imaging is not happening in the bathroom. It’s happening in the plumbing,” Dr. Grego explained “For privacy, not to make anyone feel uncomfortable.”

Dr. Grego says the Smart Toilet would not alter a person’s experience in the bathroom. They simply must flush, and the technology does the rest of the work. Results could populate on a cellphone app which can be shared with a physician.

If multiple people use the bathroom, she says a fingerprint scanner can be installed on the toilet lever to differentiate who is using the toilet at that time.

Dr. Kaplan says if the technology is accurate, she can see it being helpful to her and her patients.

“The majority of people don’t look at their poop that closely so having objective data from their toilet would be helpful,” Dr. Kaplan said.

The Smart Toilet is still being developed. Dr. Grego anticipates a prototype to become available for testing in the next year to year and a half. Commercial use would become available after that.

For more information on Duke University’s Smart Toilet Lab click here: http://smarttoilet.pratt.duke.edu/

For more information on Dr. Kaplan and East Cooper GI click here: www.eastcoopergi.com

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