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Researchers Develop Life-Saving App for Smartphones and Tablets

  • Jessica Berman

Phone Oximeter (Lion's Gate Technologies)

Phone Oximeter (Lion's Gate Technologies)

A new application, or app, has been developed for smartphones and portable computer tablets that may soon save lives in developing countries. Besides being highly portable, the technology is cheap and easy to use.

Of the six billion mobile phone users in the world, experts say about two-thirds live in developing countries where millions of children die each year due to lack of oxygen from pneumonia. The lung infection is highly treatable with antibiotics, but often caregivers are not aware of the critical nature of the child's condition.

So, Dr. Mark Ansermino of the University of British Columbia and his colleagues developed a small, inexpensive device that can be attached to the earphone jack of a smartphone or mobile tablet that measures pulse oximetry. Assessing the level of oxygen in the blood is sometimes called the fifth vital sign - along with pulse, temperature, breathing rate and blood pressure measurements.

The app, called the Phone Oximeter, gets its data from a clip attached to a fingertip or earlobe.

Ansermino, a pediatric anesthesiologist, explains the device shines light of different wavelengths through the skin, taking advantage of a unique characteristic of blood.

“When you have got oxygen on your blood, it goes red and when you have not got oxygen in your blood, it goes blue. And that is why we get this tinge around our lips when it is cold because we do not have enough oxygen in the blood around your lips. But also when children get sick ... we see the same blue color. So, what we do really is look at this light shining through the tissue and determine the bounds of this red to blue light, and from that we can tell how much of your blood has oxygen on it and how much does not," said Ansermino.

Ansermino says the inexpensive Phone Oximeter, expected to cost between $10 to $40, produces pulse oximetry readings as accurate as those of machines used in Western hospitals, costing thousands more.

The app, according to Ansermino, was designed for use at the community level, by minimally trained health workers.

“They can actually go and look at these children who perhaps have difficulty breathing or have [a] severe cold and would actually be able to put this device on the child, ask them basic questions and be able to give some judgment or diagnostic advice on what to actually do with that child. And they may even be in the position to administer some antibiotics," he said.

The device could also improve the ability to identify pregnant women at risk of developing the life-threatening condition preeclampsia.

Writing in the journal Anesthesia and Analgesia, Ansermino says smartphones and tablets have an emerging role as mobile devices that could be used exclusively for medical care.