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COVID screening via smartphone

Screening for COVID-19 key medical vital signs – it’s accessible from an app.

Quentin Daffarn, MD, UC Wireless
Quentin Daffarn, MD, UC Wireless

An app that uses a smartphone camera to process wavelength measurements of blood vessels directly under the skin through artificial intelligence can more easily determine if an individual is at risk of being infected and requires medical assistance.

Since the advent of the smartphone, it seems whenever something important needs to be done, someone, somewhere will say: “If only there were an app for that.” In today’s world, where we face both the fear of COVID-19 infection and that of the need to successfully reopen the economy, an app that can easily determine whether a person is infected or not could be a game-changer in the fight against the virus.

It is clear that in order to reopen the economy, businesses need to be able to ensure they can operate without posing a risk to either their employees, their customers or the general public. However, the limitations with regard to current testing methods means that there are far more people infected than are being reflected in the statistics, many being asymptomatic.

Quentin Daffarn, MD at UC Wireless, points out that since COVID-19 is likely to be with us for some time to come, with second waves already now prevalent in many countries that believed they had reached their peak, the development of an app that enables advanced screening for detection of key vital signs of infection and risk as early as possible is thus critical.

“If one is able to screen quickly and efficiently for the key symptoms and signs, it will make it easier to identify as many people as possible who are possibly or probably infected. To this end, an app now exists that can transform most camera-equipped smartphones into vital signs monitors to detect vital signs such as low level oxygen or high heart rate, or respiration that indicates whether a person may be infected,” he says.

“Basically, it works by using the smartphone’s camera processing the video feed and extracting medical vital signs through advanced artificial intelligence to search for an increase in heart and respiratory rate and hypoxia, which is the desaturation of oxygen in haemoglobin. These are three additional signs, along with high temperature, that can indicate the possibility of COVID-19 infection or any other infection or respiratory condition that may save a person’s life by detecting the need for further medical attention before it’s too late.”

Daffarn explains that the app utilises advanced screening with artificial intelligence (AI) processes wavelength measurements of blood vessels directly under the skin to measure these key vital signs.

“This approach is a far more effective option than the current one, which only checks a person’s temperature before allowing them entrance to a building or their place of work. Paper-based health risk screening questions are also a risk as they are not monitored or processed in real-time. For one thing, temperature is not an altogether accurate gauge, since there are many who display no symptoms for the first seven to 10 days, though they may not be aware of silent hypoxia.

“This app should enable earlier detection than that, and the earlier the virus is detected, the more easily one can minimise the risk of cross-infection. Early detection is beneficial to all – it means more rapid treatment for the victim, enables a business to keep its other employees healthy, and this in turn means it runs more effectively and earns more revenue.”

He mentions that the app can open the door for bulk screening of both employees and visitors, as well as screening at vital entry points, such as hospitals, clinics, pharmacies and even border posts or airports, when these are reopened.

“It provides an encrypted QR code that is linked to the identity of each individual and which can be checked in and out of venues for anonymous contact tracing purposes – such as when a person gets on and off their taxi to work – making it easier to know who is at risk when someone is found to be positive, without the identities of anyone being known,” he continues.

“Moreover, by enabling the app on all employees’ phones, it becomes possible for these individuals to test themselves each day before they even leave home for the office. Then, if there is a problem, they can immediately seek treatment and the business will not have to shut its doors because an employee has tested positive or is at risk, enabling proactive isolation until necessary. The app provides a green, amber and red alert system, thus allowing for a graded approach – green means the individual is clear for entry; amber suggests there may be problem and the business can thus make its own call on whether entry should be allowed or investigated further; and a red or critical alert means seek treatment as soon as possible or immediately. Furthermore, a positive means health authorities and businesses could immediately begin advising anyone this person may have come into contact with. It is like an intelligent electronic version of a visitor register, which can also check your actual health without relying on honesty of question answers.”

The primary benefit of the application, however, is to save lives and ultimately skills and families by proactive screening. Peace of mind is key, aimed at enabling everyone to get back to life and economic activity while managing the risks. “We can’t all take PCR tests all the time, but the app can be used every day multiple times to ensure everyone is safe, and proactive response can be taken where needed.”

Daffarn suggests the advantages of such an app are enormous. It can help to prevent infected individuals from going to work, or from entering public places. It allows businesses to enforce daily screening to ensure risks are monitored and managed and it means infected individuals can be identified as early as possible. This also minimises the spread of the infection from people who are asymptomatic. It helps reduce the economic impact of a business having to close down owing to an outbreak begun through an asymptomatic individual and – perhaps most crucially of all – enables the alerting of those an infected person has come into contact with, especially that these people do not have to even own a smartphone since the screening and checking at venues supports all people, which is inclusive of the full population where it is deployed, without people feeling they are being tracked all the time since visitor logging is already manually commonplace at businesses, schools, hospitals and everywhere. The app adds AI and more real-time proactiveness.

“With a back-end that is secure and cloud-based and provides an enterprise dashboard with reporting, this is not ‘just another app’, but rather something that can really help countries to open up their economies that much more safely, since it not only works across multiple different organisations, geographical premises and locations and all industries, but is also able to integrate with other apps and screening systems, thereby enabling even more effective and comprehensive testing for the disease.

“The pandemic is crying out for solutions that take advantage of the latest technologies to reduce its impact and provide speedier diagnoses and responses. This new app not only helps to achieve all of these, but in African terms, also offers the longer term potential for application in diagnosing numerous other diseases that also have a significant health impact across the continent,” he concludes. Beyond Africa, there is a global benefit for an app developed here in South Africa, combining health artificial intelligence on a mobile phone with risk management and actual vital signs measurement with medical accuracy.

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