Healthy Selfies

A selfie a day might keep the doctor away

The roles that smartphones and wearables play in our lives keep on expanding, from enabling calls and texts to payments and games, and from web navigation to road navigation. One of the most exciting emerging applications for these devices is in health, where capabilities continue to develop quickly.

A journey that began on smartphones has developed and moved toward wearables. Initially this was through wrist-based activity tracking, heart-rate monitoring and sleep tracking, but more recently manufacturers have started adding advanced health features such as an electrocardiogram sensor on the Apple Watch.

This trend looks set to continue, as Samsung recently announced that its new Galaxy Watch Active2 will also offer an electrocardiogram function, and as a wide range of other wearable devices promise users a better way to track their health around the clock. We’ve seen everything from sports watches to fertility trackers hit the market in recent years, allowing users to track their bodies in a multitude of ways.

Other smart devices are also moving into the health space. A few weeks ago the UK’s National Health Service announced a partnership with Amazon to provide medical advice to patients through the Alexa personal assistant (see Doctor Alexa).

However, smartphones are in the limelight in the health arena once again, thanks to a new application that can monitor aspects of a user’s health by analysing their selfies.

Researchers at the University of Toronto have developed a technology called transdermal optical imaging, a contactless method of identifying changes in facial blood flow. It works by gathering data from optical sensors in a smartphone and uses machine learning to determine blood pressure. According to the researchers, the technology demonstrated up to 96% accuracy when measuring blood pressure, meaning it achieves international standards for blood pressure monitoring equipment.

Smartphone users can try a version of the transdermal optical imaging software through an app called Anura. This lets people record a 30-second video of their face to receive measurements for stress levels and resting heart rate. A version of the app that includes blood pressure measurements will be released later in 2019 in China.

The researchers say that having easy access to blood pressure measurements is highly beneficial, because when blood pressure is too high or too low, it can lead to major health problems like heart attacks and strokes. They suggest that their approach could be a game-changer, as it uses existing imaging technology in smartphones. By employing tools that are already in the hands of billions of people around the world, the technology can give users a quick, easy and consistent way to measure aspects of their health. This could be particularly useful in parts of the world where ready access to high-quality healthcare provision is difficult. That said, taking a selfie is clearly no substitute for monitoring by a medical professional.

This is an intriguing application of mobile imaging and shows the tremendous potential of modern smartphone cameras and processing. We’ve written extensively in the past about the capability of the modern smartphone camera (see, for example, Megapixel Bravado and The Eye of the Beholder), and it’s not surprising to see this technology being harnessed in new and creative ways.

Although the app is still being fine-tuned, a basic version for measuring heart rate and stress is available on iOS and Android. Selfies aren’t a clinically approved method of diagnosis, but, nonetheless, this emerging research highlights the potential for smartphones to have a significant impact on healthcare.