Handheld technology helps deliver faster COVID-19 diagnoses

May 26th, 2020

Faster and more accurate bedside diagnoses of lung disease related to COVID-19 will soon be possible anywhere in B.C. through a network of portable handheld ultrasound scanners.

The Digital Technology Supercluster project, led by St. Paul’s Hospital emergency physician and UBC Faculty of Medicine clinical assistant professor Dr. Oron Frenkel, will provide clinicians in rural settings with point of care ultrasound (PoCUS) technology, supported by artificial intelligence (AI) and a robust educational network.

The Point-of-Care Ultrasound for COVID-19 project team is co-led by Dr. Teresa Tsang, Professor of Medicine, Division of Cardiology; Purang Abolmaesumi, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Faculty of Applied Science; and Robert Rohling, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering and Director of the Institute for Computing, Information and Cognitive Systems at UBC.

Rural and remote health care practitioners with limited access to specialists will be able to diagnose pneumonia from suspected COVID-19 patients in real time. The team will build Canada’s first ultrasound library for lung disease, including COVID-19. The on-demand platform will use collected data to train machine learning models, which will be accessible to all users right at the point of care.

“This means even physicians with limited experience using handheld ultrasound scanners will be able to obtain fast, accurate results,” explains Dr. Frenkel, “and ultimately, this will transform the way remote areas can deal with COVID-19 in their communities.”

“Dr. Abolmaesumi and I are truly excited to see that AI capabilities for ultrasound imaging that we have jointly developed across two UBC faculties are being deployed in this COVID-19 project,” says Dr. Tsang. “Our AI-empowered imaging platform enables rapid risk stratification of patients presenting with COVID-19 symptoms and has a direct impact on our frontline workers, our patients, our community and the Canadian healthcare system.”

Data from pandemic hotspots suggest PoCUS can help detect up to 33 per cent more cases of COVID-19 pneumonia than some current lab tests alone. It is also less expensive and avoids the delays patients in some remote communities have experienced with their lab test results.

The PoCUS scanners are designed and provided by Burnaby-based Clarius Mobile Health. Easy to learn and use, Clarius scanners operate with an AI-powered app on most Apple or Android smart devices. Fifty units will be piloted to rural areas – focusing on family physician offices and acute care settings – and an additional 32 will be distributed to acute care sites in the Lower Mainland.

Clarius wireless ultrasound scanners also offer the added benefit of easier infection control measures. They can be completely encased and quickly disinfected after an exam as the physician moves from patient to patient.

The Digital Technology Supercluster COVID-19 program is investing $60 million to deliver solutions to some of the biggest health and safety problems created by COVID-19. In addition, these projects will build expertise and capacity to address and anticipate issues that may arise in future health crises.

“The team led by Dr. Frenkel pivoted an earlier, successful iteration of this technology to focus specifically on heart and lung diagnoses that can aid our treatment of COVID-19,” says Sue Paish, CEO of the Digital Technology Supercluster. “This innovation shows how quickly and creatively our technology community is moving to help Canadians battle COVID-19.”

The $2 million project received an additional $500,000 in funding to specifically support the COVID-19 component. This additional funding has been provided by the Digital Technology Supercluster, Rural Co-ordination Centre of BC, Providence Health Care, Clarius Mobile Health, Change Healthcare and UBC. Change Healthcare and Providence Health Care, supported by St. Paul’s Foundation, are founding members of the Supercluster.

The Digital Technology Supercluster solves some of industry’s and society’s biggest problems through Canadian-made technologies. We bring together private and public sector organizations of all sizes to address challenges facing Canada’s economic sectors including healthcare, natural resources, manufacturing and transportation. Through this ‘collaborative innovation’ the Supercluster helps to drive solutions better than any single organization could on its own.  The Digital Technology Supercluster is led by industry leaders such as D-WaveFinger Food  Advanced Technology GroupLifeLabsLlamaZOOLululemonMDAMicrosoftMosaic Forest ManagementSanctuary AITeck Resources LimitedTELUSTerramera, and 1Qbit. Together, we work to position Canada as a global hub for digital innovation. A full list of Members can be found here.

The Digital Technology Supercluster’s COVID-19 Program invests in  projects that contribute to improving the health and safety of Canadians, supporting Canada’s ability to address issues created by the COVID-19 outbreak.  In addition, these projects will build expertise and capacity to address and anticipate issues that may arise in future health crises. More information can be found here. 

To support our efforts in combating COVID-19, please consider making a gift to our COVID-19 Response Fund.