Health IT

How to Take Your Vitals Without Touching: Q&A with Eribaweimon Shilla

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There’s perhaps nothing more basic in medicine than taking a patient’s vitals, but such tasks can get tricky when the patient is one of the small visitors to the neonatal intensive care unit.

But what if no probes or needles are needed to track healthcare vitals like heart and respiration rate? That’s what Xerox has developed — an early prototype technology that uses imaging technologies for detecting pulmonary functions.

A group at Xerox Research Center Webster has been working with Manipal University Hospital, a tertiary care center in India, to pilot a healthcare vitals-sensing project that promises to accurately obtain and track healthcare vitals — from heart rate to risk of breast cancer, cardiac arrhythmia and stroke predictions — without any probes touching the patient.

As part of that collaboration, Eribaweimon Shilla, a medically trained respiratory specialist, has been helping to collect and interpret medical data for the team from the neonatal intensive care units at Manipal University where the pilot is being conducted.

We recently sat down with Shilla, an assistant professor in the School of Allied Health Sciences at Manipal University who is working on her PhD, during a stint working at the Xerox facilities in the United States. She talked about the potential of non-contact detection technologies, of missing babies back home, and of her appreciation for American turkey burgers:

What have you been doing since you arrived?

Well, I’m enjoying being here in the United States. I have held a few training sessions for the researchers on respiratory topics. I’ve been helping the team determine how this technology they are developing can help doctors and what we can realistically try to use it for clinical practice.

What do you think of this remote healthcare sensing project?

I find it extremely interesting how Xerox is applying its imaging, sensing and analytics expertise to obtain and track human vitals without putting any probes on the skin. To be able to detect heart rates and even the pressures and volumes of a lung from a camera lens is fascinating and can have great implications for healthcare. Having worked on the pilot of this technology in the hospital back in India, I’ve seen how important this can be in the neonatal unit as babies’ skin is often damaged with probes being taken on and off or moved. Just the thought of measuring various pulmonary functions in a non-contact way can make many respiratory diagnoses possible especially in the neonatal environment. I cannot be more specific due to proprietary nature of what we do in Xerox Research.

As a reparatory specialist, how do you see this technology being used?  Would you use it?

Yes, I have participated in the pilot so I have used it already on patients and seen the preliminary results. In the neonatal unit situations arise where the needles that are used for infusions and to track vitals sometimes break off. If this happens we have to operate to get it out and this can cause a lot of damage. Being able to monitor the patient without using needles and probes will greatly decrease the risk for patients and can improve patient safety.

I work with infants and they move around a lot. This makes it a challenging trying to track respiratory elimination, lung capacity and volumes while the baby is moving. Automatic detection of certain key areas of the body that can tell us important information (head/nose/mouth for respiration) will help the remote sensors be more accurate and possibly be able to be used to track and diagnose other medical issues we see routinely in our practice.

I do see great hopes for how this technology can change how I would work as a therapist. A non-contact system that is accurate can not only greatly improve the comfort of the babies but also has possible applications for remote healthcare at homes, in rural villages and locations that may be far from a specialist. It’s exciting to be part of this pilot as this technology could change how I as a medical doctor practice medicine in the future.

How is your work here different from what you do in India?

I have more time here to explore the intersection of medicine and technology. Here I’ve been sharing my experiences in the hospital and with patients and helping the scientists anticipate how the technology can help a doctor and what type of situations can come up that may make it difficult or challenging for the technology to deliver what we need. We are hoping to get these complex sensing technologies to do difficult and precise work. I do think having been here I have the confidence that it can be done.

Have there been any surprises – anything you didn’t expect?

I knew being here I’d be obviously working on the technology side and be with computers — but it has surprised me how much I miss the babies. In India, if I am stressed I would go into the neonatal unit and talk to my babies. I do like working with the team here — they are very passionate about what they are doing and I know they will make a difference in how I as a therapist care for my patients. It’s really neat that I can be helping to shape this technology.

What do you hope to bring back to India with you?

Well, I will miss the clean atmosphere and surroundings as well as eating deliciously American turkey sandwiches and burgers — but seriously I hope to bring back the spirit of collaboration I’ve felt here at Xerox. I believe that if we work together bridging the world of medicine with technology we can solve a lot of issues, make healthcare simpler, less costly and more easily available to more people. I hope to encourage more joint projects like this with hospitals because I can see how it will change the way we deliver healthcare where and when it is needed.

Laurie Riedman owns Riedman Communications, a strategic marketing and public relations firm.