An app called BiliCam uses a smartphone’s camera and flash in conjunction with a color calibration card to diagnose jaundice in infants. A common condition in infants—especially those born prematurely, jaundice symptoms are typically mild for most babies. In some cases, however, jaundice can cause severe harm and be potentially be fatal to the infant if left untreated.
Skin that turns yellow can be a telltale sign of jaundice, and is a possible indication that the newborn is not eliminating the chemical bilirubin, a natural byproduct made in the liver. If left untreated, it could lead to brain damage and a potentially fatal condition called kernicterus.
Developed by engineers at the University of Washington, the smartphone app is said to be simple and quick to use. A Parent or health care professional need only place the calibration card on the baby’s belly, then take a picture with the card in view. The card calibrates and accounts for different lighting conditions and skin tones. Data is then sent from the photo to the cloud, and is analyzed by machine-learning algorithms. Finally, a detailed report on the newborn’s bilirubin levels is sent to the parent’s phone in minutes.
The research team will present the results in Seattle at the Association for Computing Machinery’s International Joint Conference in September. The app is only one of several recent developments in smartphone technology used for diagnostic purposes, and represents a growing interest in incorporating everyday smartphones into basic medical screenings. James Taylor, a professor of pediatrics and medical director of the newborn nursery at the UW Medical Center, recently spoke to university news about the effectiveness of the app.
“Virtually every baby gets jaundiced, and we’re sending them home from the hospital even before bilirubin levels reach their peak,” Taylor said. “This smartphone test is really for babies in the first few days after they go home. A parent or healthcare provider can get an accurate picture of bilirubin to bridge the gap after leaving the hospital.”
The results of the app could provide insight into whether the newborn needs a blood test, the gold standard for detecting dangerously high levels of bilirubin. Currently there are a few noninvasive jaundice screening tools available in some hospitals and clinics, but the instrument costs several thousand dollars and isn’t available for home use. This leaves most parents with a basic visual assessment to judge whether or not their newborn is showing increasing signs of yellowing skin, a stressful and often inaccurate method. The BiliCam could provide an affordable, practical, and easy-to-use alternative screening method for parents when they first return home with their newborn.
The researchers plan to test the BiliCam on up to a thousand additional newborns, specifically those with darker skin pigments to test its efficiency across various skin types. The hope is that they can continue to refine their algorithms to account for all ethnicities and skin colors, which in turn, could prove useful for parents and healthcare professionals in developing nations where jaundice accounts for many newborn deaths.
“We’re really excited about the potential of this in resource-poor areas,” Taylor said. “Something that can make a difference in places where there aren’t tools to measure bilirubin, but there’s good infrastructure for mobile phones.”
Researchers believe that the app could be in use by doctors and healthcare professionals as an alternative screening method within a year’s time. They have also filed patents on the technology, and hope that the app can be approved by the FDA for home use within a couple of years.
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