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Smartphone app helps diagnose newborns with jaundice in minutes

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A team of researchers from the University of Washington have developed a new smartphone app that will help diagnose jaundice in newborns.

Jaundice is a very common condition among newborns and occurs when the infant's liver is not fully matured, which causes blood to contains too much bilirubin, a yellow pigment of red blood cells. Newborns with jaundice have a yellow discoloration of skin and eyes, but detecting the condition is not always easy.

"Virtually every baby gets jaundiced, and we're sending them home from the hospital even before bilirubin levels reach their peak," says James Taylor, a professor of pediatrics and medical director at the newborn nursery at University of Washington Medical Center. "This smartphone test is really for babies in the first few days after they go home. A parent or health care provider can get an accurate picture of bilirubin to bridge the gap after leaving the hospital."

The app, called BiliCam, uses the camera on a smartphone and a calibration card to detect the condition. Parents place the calibration card on the baby's belly and take a picture of the infant, making sure the card is visible. BiliCam app then reports bilirubin levels to diagnose jaundice early.

If left untreated, jaundice could cause brain damage and other fatal complications.

"This is a way to provide peace of mind for the parents of newborns," says Shwetak Patel, an associate professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington.

Jaundice is diagnosed through a blood test, but BiliCam provides a screening tool that is proven to be effective. In a clinical study of 100 newborns, babies were given a blood test and BiliCam screening when they were two to five days old.

Researchers found that BiliCam was just as effective or even more effective than the current screening tool. The current screening tool is only offered by some hospitals and is expensive. The app allows proper screening from home use.

"In the old days, all we used were our eyes to decide whether a baby should get her or his blood drawn for bilirubin levels," Taylor says. "And so our eyes are obviously very subjective to the baby's skin and the light in the room ... and that really was one of the main problems with visual assessment for jaundice."

Taylor and his team plan to test the BiliCam on up to 1,000 newborns so that the algorithms of the app will be able to detect jaundice in newborns of all skin colors and ethnicities. It is expected that doctors can start using the app as a screening tool alternative within a year.

Researchers are hopeful the app will receive a FDA approval for home use in two years.

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