Researchers Use App to Detect Newborn Jaundice

BiliCam_image
It's a parent's nightmare: Your newborn baby goes home with a common, but normal slight yellowing of the skin, but it worsens into severe jaundice without detection. If left untreated, it can lead to debilitating, lifelong conditions.

A smartphone app with the answer

Researchers from McKay-Dee Hospital collaborated with the University of Washington to study a smartphone application developed by the university to check newborns for jaundice. Robert D. Christensen, MD, Intermountain director of neonatology, and Vickie Baer, data manager for women and newborn research, led the study at McKay-Dee in coordination with lead investigator, James A. Taylor, MD, from the department of pediatrics at the University of Washington.
 
The study, published in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, shows a smartphone application could help screen for high bilirubin levels that indicate jaundice without a blood test and get the results in minutes. The results show an accurate estimate of total serum bilirubin values in a newborn, thus the application could help screen for jaundice without a blood test anywhere the technology is available.

 

How does the app work?

Dr. Christensen says almost all babies have some yellowing in their first days after birth, which is completely normal and harmless. However, sometimes the condition becomes so severe that very high levels of the yellow pigment damage the nervous system.

The BiliCam smartphone app uses a phone's camera along with a color card the size of a business card to check bilirubin levels. The phone is placed on the baby's chest and a photo is sent to a cloud-based tool for analysis.

What are the implications with this technology? 

"A big drive for this app is it could be used easily in a physician's office or at home — or in developing countries that have cell phones but not a lot of other resources," says Vickie.

On average, Utah has one baby per year that develops newborn jaundice severe enough to have brain damage. Across the U.S. jaundice is more prevalent — there are more than 100 cases each year — and in developing countries it's one of the leading causes of cerebral palsy and deafness.

Intermountain began a program in 2004 aimed at reducing newborn jaundice. The program requires every baby born at our hospitals to have a blood test before they go home to assess their bilirubin levels. Even though the program has been highly successful, it doesn't prevent every case of extreme jaundice.

Why is this screening tool important?

"The problem happens most of the time after the baby goes home," says Dr. Christensen. "Certainly, we'll continue doing blood tests for newborns that we recognize are at risk for severe jaundice. But for those babies that don't have jaundice in the hospital and develop it after going home, this potential technology could be a screening tool.”

He adds that in neonatology, researchers are very interested in noninvasive tests. "For some of our tiniest babies, it's a shame to draw blood when other techniques are either available or on the horizon."

BiliCam is still in the testing phase, but Dr. Christensen says it could come to practical usage in a year or two.

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For additional information about this study and other research at Intermountain, email officeofresearch@imail.org.