Smart camera system checks patients’ vital signs from afar
Software monitors heart rate, breathing and blood oxygen without a single sensor touching the body – useful for police cells as well as hospital wards
BEEPING monitors. Stick-on electrodes. The finger clip that takes your pulse. Modern medicine comes with a cacophony of sensors. Oxehealth, a company spun out from the University of Oxford, is aiming to replace them all with just one – a camera.
Oxehealth’s software uses camera data to measure heart rate, respiration and blood oxygenation from a distance. The company is now trying out the technology in the real world, in hospitals, psychiatric wards and police stations.
One place the tech is being tested is at the John Radcliffe, Oxford’s main teaching hospital. Patients who will need a spell in intensive care after their surgery are being asked to participate in the trial: Oxehealth’s cameras will monitor their vital signs in parallel with conventional sensors.
“Normal monitoring involves sticking things on patients,” says Peter Watkinson, an intensive care doctor for Oxford University Hospital Trust. “It makes it less easy for them to get out of bed, have a shower or go to the loo. Every time you roll over in bed you pull the thing off.”
The Oxehealth software watches for the tiny changes in video frames as a patient’s chest rises and falls when they breathe, for example. It also tracks subtle changes in the pinkness of their skin, using that to infer their pulse.
Watkinson thinks camera monitoring will make it possible to catch patients whose condition is deteriorating before their symptoms are obvious. At the moment, clinicians have to decide which patients they need to monitor – usually those who are recovering from a procedure or are already very ill. But the cameras would be able to keep tabs on everyone in their vicinity.
“It would be much more reliable at picking up patients at risk of deterioration throughout the hospital,” says Watkinson.
Oxehealth’s Oliver Gibson says the company has also been running studies with London’s Metropolitan Police Service and Broadmoor high-security psychiatric hospital. Here the firm is “trying to solve the problem of making sure someone is safe when they’re in a secure room”.
“With camera monitoring you can catch patients who are deteriorating before symptoms are obvious“
In April, Broadmoor installed cameras in one of its rooms. Staff would sit there during the day, while patients would sleep in it at night. Both were wired up with sensors to validate the readings the cameras took.
Broadmoor’s patients need regular monitoring, says the hospital’s director Robert Bates – especially at night. “We usually check on patients every 15 minutes,” he says. It can be hard to tell whether someone is breathing just by looking through their door, so staff have to approach patients to make sure they’re OK. “It’s upsetting for the patients because they’re being regularly disturbed,” says Bates.
The camera system could offer a less intrusive means of keeping tabs on residents. “It will also help us monitor our patients’ physical health after administration of medication,” says Bates. “Anti-psychotics can have an impact on patients’ physical health.”
Gibson says the Broadmoor study confirmed the cameras’ accuracy. “We were getting a breathing rate accuracy where 94 per cent of measures were within two breaths per minute of a contact device,” he says. “And 94 per cent of heart rate measures were within three beats per minute.”
Oxehealth is not alone in hoping to free patients from their wires. Steffen Leonhardt at RWTH Aachen University in Germany is setting up a wireless monitoring ward in the university hospital. Six beds in the geriatrics department will have cameras monitoring their occupants’ vitals.
Leonhardt says the system could one day be installed in elderly people’s homes.”The reach will be large as we have an ageing population,” he says.
The biggest advantage of camera monitoring may come after patients are discharged. Wiring people up to keep track of their health is impractical once they’ve left hospital, but camera-based systems could work.
“Perhaps people could go home earlier from hospital and we could monitor them remotely,” says Watkinson. If chronically ill people could be monitored from home, he says, they could might avoid coming into hospital at all.
This article appeared in print under the headline “A watchful eye”
HAL HODSON | NEWSCIENTIST.COM