Anemia is a health condition that affects an estimated two billion people around the globe. Anemia can be mild for some people. For others, especially children, it can have a range of side effects and cause a number of health complications, including developmental issues. It can even increase the risk of developing other health conditions. Timely diagnosis of anemia can be crucial because it allows people to start immediate treatment with iron supplements to help prevent many of these health complications.
Fortunately for many, anemia can easily be diagnosed with a simple blood test. For many others, however, especially those living in poorer areas of the world, access to a blood test many of us may see as routine is not readily available. As a result, many people aren’t able to get the care they need.
A team of researchers at the University College London and the University of Ghana may have come up with a solution: smartphones and a smartphone app, which can be more easily distributed around the world compared to the tools needed for a blood test. It’s also a more affordable option. Researchers describe their efforts to use smartphone technology for anemia diagnosis in a new article published in PLOS One.
The team developed a unique approach to collecting and analyzing images taken of certain parts of the skin, including the eyes and the lips. Then, using artificial intelligence, researchers developed an app that can analyze these images by looking at the color of the skin tissue. That’s because hemoglobin absorbs light, changing pigmentation in certain areas of the body. Because anemia affects hemoglobin levels, detecting abnormalities in skin pigmentation through pictures could help detect anemia without the need for a blood test. This approach, colorimetry, is a standard, well-known method of analysis. Colorimetry operates on the idea that certain compounds and pigments absorb certain wavelengths of light, allowing researchers to detect changes beneath the skin by looking at how light does or doesn’t pass through hemoglobin.
Initial testing suggests the smartphone app recognized cases of severe anemia and was even able to detect some more mild cases. Further research and testing is needed before the device can be used effectively in the field.