Newborn jaundice is a common condition in babies less than a week old. While yellowing of the skin is a primary indicator, that discoloration may be hard to see and, if left untreated, the condition can harm a baby. University of Washington, Seattle, engineers and physicians have developed a smartphone application that can check for jaundice in newborns and can deliver results to parents and pediatricians within minutes.

Parents or physicians can monitor a newborn baby’s jaundice with their smartphones through BiliCam. (Credit: University of Washington)

Since bilirubin levels build up, usually after the baby leaves the hospital, the smartphone test is a good way to bridge the gap in the first few days after they go home, the researchers said. It could serve as a screening tool to determine whether a baby needs a blood test to detect high levels of bilirubin that aren’t being eliminated.

The app, called BiliCam, uses a smartphone’s camera and flash and a color calibration card. A parent or health care professional would download the app, place the card on the baby’s belly, then take a picture with the card in view. The card calibrates and accounts for different lighting conditions and skin tones. Data from the photo are sent to the cloud and are analyzed by machine-learning algorithms, and a report on the newborn’s bilirubin levels is sent almost instantly to the parent’s phone.

The UW team ran a clinical study with 100 newborns and their families using a blood test and BiliCam to test the babies when they were between two and five days old. They found that BiliCam performed as well as or better than the current screening tool. Though it wouldn’t replace a blood test, BiliCam could let parents know if they should take that next step, they said.