- Researchers in Atlanta are working on an mHealth app that could detect anemia simply by looking at a smartphone user’s fingernails.
The digital health application could eventually replace invasive blood draws and improve outcomes for more than 2 million people worldwide who live with low blood hemoglobin (Hgb) levels. It could also be incorporated into telehealth and remote patient monitoring platforms that enable providers to treat their patients at home, rather than in the hospital or doctor’s office.
It’s also the latest in a long and continuing effort to turn the ubiquitous smartphone into an mHealth device and diagnostic tool, giving consumers more control over their healthcare while enabling their care providers to connect and collaborate at any time and place.
“The bottom line is that we have created a way for anyone to be able to screen themselves for anemia anytime, anywhere, without the need to draw blood,” Dr. Wilbur Lam, an associate professor of biomedical engineering and pediatrics at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University, recently told Reuters.
“This is part of a trend, I think, of moving healthcare closer to the consumer,” added Dr. Rasu Shrestha, UPMC’s chief innovation officer.
Lam served as the senior author of a study published in Nature, in which he and his fellow researchers developed and tested the mHealth app on about 100 volunteers.
The app uses an algorithm, designed by Georgia Tech and Emory PhD student Robert Mannino, that scans a photograph of the user’s fingernails for pallor, of distinct coloration. The app then uses AI technology to match that image against a database of anemia scans.
According to the study, the app was successful in identifying anemia in 97 percent of the tests.
In their study, Lam and his colleagues point out that an mHealth platform for anemia testing would make it much easier and less invasive to detect and monitor the condition, especially for those with chronic anemia who require constant monitoring. It would also take care management out of the health system and into the field.
“Existing clinical approaches to measure blood Hgb levels require specialized equipment and represent tradeoffs between invasiveness, accuracy, infrastructure requirements and cost, all of which are especially problematic in rural and low-resource settings, where anemia is most prevalent,” they wrote.
“For example, the gold standard CBC Hgb level measurement requires: blood sampling by a trained phlebotomist, a clinical hematology analyzer with the required electrical power, biochemical reagents, and infrastructure thereof, along with a trained laboratory technician to perform the analysis,” they added. “Aside from being cost-prohibitive in resource-poor settings, the necessary invasive blood sampling to measure Hgb levels causes discomfort in younger pediatric patients.”
Lam and his colleagues said they selected a mobile platform that would target the fingernail because it’s an easy feature to photograph with the smartphone camera, and it doesn’t contain melanocytes, which would affect color.
They said they still have work to do before the app can be considered for clinical or commercial use. The test focused on only one smartphone, and researchers have to consider how disease that affect the fingernails – like jaundice and cyanosis – might affect results.
“Overall, the ability to conduct self-testing using an unmodified smartphone presents significant advantages over previously reported technologies which require additional equipment such as calibration cards and light-blocking rigs,” they concluded. “Moreover, the app utilizes metadata that is automatically obtained from the smartphone camera which enables normalization of background lighting conditions. This presents significant conceptual advantages over existing Hgb measurement technologies, as Hgb levels can now be measured by a patient without requiring a clinic visit or any cumbersome external equipment.”