Swiss scientists have developed a contactless and wireless camera system to continuously monitor the vital signs of premature babies, which could replace uncomfortable skin sensors that cause false alarms 90 per cent of the time. The camera system developed by researchers at EPFL Polytechnical University in Lausanne and Swiss Centre for Electronics and Microtechnology (CSEM) could improve the way babies’ heart rates and breathing are monitored.
In the near future, premature babies kept warm in neonatal incubators could be medically monitored using cameras rather than with sensors attached to their skin, researchers said. The system is about to be tested on premature babies at University Hospital Zurich (USZ). “Skin sensors placed on the babies’ chests are so sensitive that they generate false alarms up to 90 per cent of the time, mainly caused by the babies moving around,” said Jean-Claude Fauchere, a doctor at USZ’s neonatal clinic.
“This is a source of discomfort for the babies, because we have to check on them every time. It is also a significant stress factor for nurses and a poor use of their time – it distracts them from managing real emergencies and can affect quality of care,” said Fauchere. With the camera system, no physical contact is required. The baby’s pulse is detected by analysing its skin colour, which changes ever so slightly every time its heart beats.
Breathing is monitored by measuring movements of its thorax and shoulders. At night, infrared cameras take over, which means that monitoring can be carried out non-stop. The optical system cameras are sensitive enough to detect minute changes in skin colour.
“We ran an initial study on a group of adults, where we looked at a defined patch of skin on their foreheads,” said Sibylle Fallet, a PhD student at EPFL.”With our algorithms we can track this area when the person moves, isolate the skin pixels and use minor changes in their colour to determine the pulse. The tests showed that the cameras produced practically the same results as conventional sensors,” said Fallet.
“We plan to take measurements on as many preemies as possible to see whether, under real-life conditions, the results we get from our algorithms match data collected using on-skin sensors,” Virginie Moser, the CSEM researcher in charge of the set-up at USZ, said. If so, the camera system could one day replace skin sensors. In addition to cutting down on false alarms, it would also be more comfortable for the babies.