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An accurate and affordable way to remotely measure a patient’s breathing rate could reduce health inequalities and help healthcare systems cope with unprecedented demand. Huma, a global digital health technology company, has researched and verified a way to do this using the gyroscopes in entry-level smartphones. The research is published in the peer-reviewed journal Digital Health.

As one of the core vital signs, clinicians use respiratory (or breathing) rate to assess the health of patients every day for a large range of diseases including blood clots and infection. However, measuring breathing rate remotely currently relies on expensive or difficult-to-use equipment. Dr Arrash Yassaee, Clinical Director at Huma, said: “As clinicians, we frequently use breathing rate as an indicator of someone’s health, but this can be difficult and unreliable in remote consultations. Now, however, we’ve shown it can be done just by resting your smartphone on your chest and using the gyroscopes inside to take the measurements. This is a really important step in improving patients’ remote consultation experience and opens new possibilities for decentralised clinical trials”.

In a peer-reviewed test the technology performed similarly to an FDA-approved device, with differences of fewer than 1.6 breaths per minute (a clinically-significant difference would be variation of 3 breaths per minute). In the second-stage of the study, researchers from Huma asked 160 people to use the app at home to see how the results compared. There was a difference of 1.4 breaths per minute from the reference and 93% of users were able to record a successful result on the first try.

The lead author of the study, Sophie Valentine, said: “To our knowledge, this study is distinct as it verifies the technical feasibility of a user-operated smartphone system for capturing breathing rate in this way at scale and in a real-world setting. We’re excited because this type of technology is really needed to reduce health inequalities. Existing technology options aren’t accessible enough. There are piezoelectric sensors and multi-sensor devices, but they are expensive and often complex, and there are other smartphone-based measurement technologies that use cameras and microphones but the accuracy of these are quite variable and they only work in some settings.”

Dr Yassaee added, “Our next challenge is to explore how we ensure this technology works for people who have illnesses that might affect their use, such as tremors from Parkinson’s disease, or issues with posture. We also want to find ingenious ways of data collection that don’t make users conscious of their own breathing rate, just like in an in-person consultation.”

The research, “Smartphone movement sensors for the remote monitoring of respiratory rates: Technical validation” was published in the journal Digital Health on 26th April 2022 [Link].