UBC tests remote tech for evaluating vital signs
February 24, 2021
VANCOUVER – While the rapid rise of virtual visits have made medical encounters safer and easier for both patients and medical professionals, they still have limitations. Chief among them is the difficulty of gauging a patient’s vital signs. For this reason, the University of British Columbia’s faculty of medicine is assessing the viability of a contactless sensor that could be integrated into virtual care platforms.
“During a virtual visit, a patient could be speaking normally, but their heart rate could be very high, or their oxygen saturation levels could be dangerously low,” said Dr. Kendall Ho (pictured), professor in the faculty of medicine’s department of emergency medicine.
Dr. Ho, who also leads UBC’s Digital Emergency Medicine Unit, is partnering with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) to test new technology that could be used in virtual visits to check on a patient’s vital functions.
Using built-in cameras in laptops, cellphones and other portable devices, the new software, developed by the NRC’s Medical Devices Research Centre, would enable healthcare providers to remotely receive near real-time readings of patients’ vital signs – ranging from their temperature, breathing rate, heart rate, and blood oxygen saturation levels.
“Healthcare professionals are already using computers and cameras for virtual care and patient management, but they need objective data on hand to help them confirm diagnoses and prescribe treatments online,” said Di Jiang, team lead at the NRC’s Medical Devices Research Centre.
“In a video, many details are not perceivable by a viewer. Still, software and algorithms can now use even minute fluctuations in someone’s appearance to extract interesting physiological information,” added David Rivest-Hénault, research officer at the NRC’s Medical Devices Research Centre.
While some contactless sensors exist, Rivest-Hénault pointed out that their reliability, accuracy and robustness need to be confirmed through additional research and validation.
That validation is where UBC’s Dr. Ho steps in. With $147,000 awarded by the NRC’s Pandemic Response Challenge program last fall, Dr. Ho and his colleagues in the Digital Emergency Medicine Unit are now analyzing and validating the vital-sign assessment software with ER patients at the UBC Hospital.
“Our clinical analysis of blood oxygen levels and other vital signs will reveal how the system can be integrated into virtual care,” says Dr. Ho.
The UBC research team will also determine how the touchless technology can be applied in different settings, ranging from community and emergency care visits, and adapted for contact tracing and patient follow up.
“The COVID-19 crisis has spurred us to better understand where our health gaps are, and where technology can help redefine our health system,” says Dr. Ho. “This tool contributes to that system, which not only helps us now, but may well have a lasting legacy to transform the way that health professionals partner with patients to support their wellness at home.”
The UBC Hospital validation phase is likely to run until July 2021, when patients will be provided access to the NRC’s vital-sign assessment software from their own devices. Clinical trials in various ER departments across Canada will hopefully begin in late 2022. If the testing yields solid data, the NRC will facilitate mechanisms for deployment.