Researchers at University College London and at the University of Ghana have developed a smartphone-based system that can detect anemia through simple photos taken using the phone’s camera. The technology is intended for use in low- and middle-income countries where access to routine medical diagnostics may be unreliable. The process involves obtaining images of areas of the body which are least pigmented, including the white of the eye, the lower eyelid, and the lip. The app then analyzes the color of the imaged tissue, and as hemoglobin absorbs light in a specific fashion the app can use this information to calculate the blood hemoglobin concentration. The technology could be particularly useful in identifying anemia in children in remote areas, as the condition can significantly affect their development.
Anemia is very common, affecting about two billion individuals people globally. Some patients have more at stake than others. In children, for example, anemia can have significant effects on cognitive development and disease susceptibility, so diagnosing and treating the condition is important, especially since anemia is often readily treated using dietary iron supplements.
However, while hemoglobin levels in the blood are fairly easily measured using routine laboratory procedures, for those living in low- or middle-income countries and in remote areas it may not be a simple task to attend a clinic that can perform such a procedure. There is a clear need for a simple, portable, and inexpensive way to diagnose anemia in such areas.
While a handheld analyzer that can measure hemoglobin from a blood sample has been developed as far back as the 1980s, the upfront and consumable costs associated with this device put it out of the reach of healthcare staff in many low-resource regions.
To address this, these researchers turned to the trusty smartphone, with a simple colorimetry approach based on images of areas of the body which exhibit the least pigmentation, such as the lower eye lid. In a recent test in children, the method detected all cases of severe anemia and useful levels of mild anemia.
“Smartphones are globally popular, but research using smartphone imaging to diagnose diseases shows a general trend of experiencing difficulty when transferring results to different groups of people,” said Thomas Wemyss, a researcher involved in the study. “We are excited to see these promising results in a group which is often underrepresented in research into smartphone diagnostics. An affordable and reliable technique to screen for anemia using a smartphone could drive long-term improvements in quality of life for a large amount of people.”