UBC researchers have developed a mobile Phone Oximeter that could save lives of those who live beyond the reach of regular doctor care
Of all the myriad problems facing health care in the developing world, the one that consumes Mark Ansermino is the fact that, as he says starkly, “patients don’t die in hospital. They die at home.”
People too often succumb to curable conditions because they are not diagnosed early enough to be treated or, in many cases, not diagnosed at all.
The issues are complicated, as the local health workers who serve remote areas or underserved urban populations, often lack the experience and resources to make quick diagnoses that could get someone the help they need.
Ansermino and UBC engineering colleague Guy Dumont hope to help address this problem by using one of the few pieces of technology that are common throughout the developing world: the mobile phone.
Along with colleagues at the University of British Columbia and British Columbia’s Children’s Hospital, Ansermino and Dumont have developed a Phone Oximeter–a sensor that plugs into a mobile phone’s audio jack and measures oxygen levels in people’s bloodstreams. The device then sends data to a smartphone app, which provides a checklist of questions that can help a health worker make a diagnosis.
Ansermino, an associate professor at UBC’s Department of Anesthesia, believes the oximeter can help provide a timely diagnosis of pneumonia, a condition that claims up to 2 million children a year worldwide, and preeclampsia, a major cause of the 500,000 pregnancy-related deaths that occur globally each year.
“People really die around the failure to diagnose, the failure to treat, the failure to triage–which is the decision to take them somewhere–and the failure to transport,” says Ansermino. “The phone really overcomes all those things.”
Diagnosing with shades of blue
The oximeter relies on pulse oximetry–a non-invasive tool that measures oxygen levels by shining light through a finger and detecting when the normal red blood turns a slight shade of blue. If the sensor detects a lower oxygen level, the app will suggest further lines of inquiry: how fast is child breathing? Does he or she have a fever? From there, a patient may be moved to a facility for treatment, long before a patient is literally blue in the face from oxygen deprivation.
“The oximeter will be a powerful diagnostic device in differentiating between the child who has a cold and a child who has pneumonia, so the fact that we can put this device into the hands of a lay health worker or even to a parent, we think can provide a vehicle for getting these children to health care resources,” says Ansermino.
The oximeter can also help predict serious complications in pregnant women with preeclampsia. Thanks to their own innovative research, Ansermino and Dumont, with UBC obstetrician Peter von Dadelszen, found that low levels of oxygen are an ominous sign in women with preeclampsia.
As with pneumonia, frontline health care workers can use the sensor to detect oxygen levels and then ask a separate set of questions that can help detect signs of impending complications of preeclampsia.
The app has been developed for smartphones, which Ansermino believes will be as commonplace in the developing world as old school mobile phones are today.
Sensing a burgeoning market, Ansermino and Dumont founded a spin-off company, LionsGate Technologies Inc., to make the sensor and help commercialize the venture.
They believe there may be other uses for their technology. For example, it could be used by athletes training at altitude or mountain climbers self-monitoring for early signs of altitude sickness.
But for now, the pair remain focused on using mobile phone technology to save lives.
“There is a huge amount of inequality in health care delivery and I really believe that technology can bridge that gap,” says Ansermino. “That’s why I’m doing this.”
The mobile health revolution
Mobile technologies are being harnessed to improve health care for those in remote areas of the world, and here in British Columbia. UBC News received three related submissions from UBC researchers on this theme.
Kimberly Morishita is part of a UBC research team that has developed an app to help parents of children with an eye condition called uveitis stay on top of treatments and developments. Left untreated, the condition can result in blindness.
Drs. Melanie Murray and Richard Lester are investigating whether text messaging can revolutionize care for women and families living with HIV in B.C. The WelTel study is using weekly “how are you” messages to vulnerable patients to stay connected between clinic visits and solve problems in real time.
Whether you are having a stroke in a rural community or require intensive therapy to recover from a serious medical condition, Dr. John Falconer and the eHealth laboratory are developing the of use tablet computers to provide better, more convenient care at lower cost.