Selfies for health — a smartphone app can detect anemia

Biomedical engineers have developed a non-invasive test for anemia using only a smartphone photograph of a person's fingernails.

A phone-camera picture of your fingernails could be enough to reveal your iron levels

A new smartphone app can detect anemia by analyzing a photograph of your fingernail beds (Rob Mannino)
Listen7:31

In a world in which there's an app for just about everything, now there's one for the non-invasive screening of anemia. A research team in the US has found that a smartphone image of your fingernail beds can provide enough information for reliably measuring hemoglobin in your blood. 

Anemia is a deficiency in iron levels in the blood that can result in fatigue, weakness, and in extreme cases even cardiac arrest if left untreated. It affects approximately one in four people worldwide. Current diagnosis and detection requires a blood test and lab analysis of a sample

Dr. Wilbur Lam, saw the need to develop a tool for patients to do the same test at home. Lam is an associate professor or pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine, a biomedical engineer at Georgia Tech and Emory, and a clinical hematologist at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.

He and his colleague, biomedical engineering graduate student Rob Mannino, developed a standalone, non-invasive smartphone app that is as accurate as current anemia blood tests.

Wilbur Lam (left) and biomedical engineering graduate student Rob Mannino (right), who was motivated by his own experience living with a blood disorder, test the smartphone app (Christopher Moore, Georgia Tech)

Fingernail selfie

Previous research had shown that fingernail analysis - particularly looking at fingernail beds - could be useful in detecting anemia. Fingernail beds do not contain melanin, which means the test can be conducted on people with a variety of skin tones.

The team was able to systematically correlate the colour of the fingernail beds with hemoglobin levels measured by blood counts in over 300 people, some healthy and some with varying degrees of anemia. They then developed and tested an algorithm for correlating fingernail colour to blood hemoglobin level.

The end result was their app, which requires a simple fingernail photo, and when calibrated with individual users can measure hemoglobin level with an accuracy that is on par with a blood test. 

This pregnant woman in Indonesia is having blood drawn to test for anemia (CDC Global Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic)

Who will the app benefit?

The researchers caution that the app should be used for screening, and not a replacement for clinical diagnosis.

Nevertheless, the technology is so simple and readily available that it could benefit many people who need to watch their hemoglobin levels. This could include pregnant women, women with abnormal menstrual bleeding, some athletes, cancer patients, and people with kidney failure.

Lam points out that it may be especially valuable in developing countries; particularly those with cell phone infrastructure that may be superior to their health care services. The hope that the app could be available to the public in the spring. 

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