Keeping Canadians healthy and at home

- Boucherville, Quebec

A "vital" addition to remote healthcare

It's 3 am and you're having chest pains. You're not sure what you should do. You could go to the emergency room, but that might lead to hours of waiting and the possibility of catching something from another ill patient. You could call your province's telehealth service, but the nurse you speak with has no way of taking your vital signs, which are critical for knowing what's happening.

The NRC's Medical Devices Research Centre has developed a software tool that provides a solution. Called VitalSeer, this software is winning international acclaim for its potential to keep older adults out of the emergency room. VitalSeer has also received positive feedback from remote communities and for people who are unable to visit a healthcare facility.

VitalSeer: providing key information to ensure high-quality remote care

Laptop with VitalSeer technology on screen with reference device measurements shown in mobile app

Team Lead, Di Jiang having her vital signs read during a VitalSeer test.

VitalSeer is designed to be an easy-to-use, accurate and reliable way for patients to take their vital signs at home. Anyone can install VitalSeer on their computer, smartphone or tablet (with help from a caregiver or healthcare professionals if needed) and then use their device to take 3 vital signs with VitalSeer. Once installed, VitalSeer can be used to measure heart rate, respiratory rate and oxygen saturation through contactless technology. This information can be shared with the healthcare professionals and caregivers.

"This remote health technology fills an important gap," says Dr. Di Jiang, Team Lead for remote biosensing at the NRC's Medical Devices Research Centre, calling it "critical foundational information" for providing optimal healthcare services.

Dr. Kendall Ho is an emergency medicine specialist at Vancouver Coastal Health and a professor of emergency medicine at the University of British Columbia who conducts research in digital health. He has been involved with VitalSeer from the beginning. Dr. Ho describes his role as performing "real-world" testing to determine when it makes sense to use VitalSeer, whether it's easy to use, how to integrate it into the workflow of an emergency room and other healthcare settings and, importantly, how to scale it up so it can be used more broadly.

Laptop screenshot of VitalSeer technology user interface showcasing real-time vital sign measurements.

Screenshot from a laptop of the VitalSeer platform taking technical officer, Linda Pecora's vital signs

As an emergency room doctor, Dr. Ho says VitalSeer, in combination with virtual assessments, helps older adults avoid going to the emergency department, cuts down the time they spend there and sends them home reassured that they are safe. He also sees VitalSeer as filling an equity gap.

"In my experience, very few people that call their province's telehealth service have the advanced technology at home to give the nurse information about their vital signs. VitalSeer is for all the people who don't have that equipment since it only requires a home computer, tablet or a smartphone," he says.

From pandemic to aging-in-place strategy

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Jiang and her team focused on VitalSeer's potential for keeping vulnerable people out of the emergency room. In a post-pandemic world, Di and her team are now adapting VitalSeer for applications specific to the NRC's Aging in Place Challenge program, which focuses on enabling older adults and their caregivers with technologies and innovations to support their choice to age in place, one of the focus being preventive home and community-based care.

To that end, Dr. Jiang is going to the next level with VitalSeer. She is working with Dr. Ho to explore how acceptable people would find passive monitoring, which is where a camera is used to constantly evaluate patients and assess markers beyond vital signs such as their balance and stability.

"That's the power of VitalSeer," says Dr. Ho. "But it has to be acceptable to the people using it, who may not want a camera constantly on in their home."

"Being able to prevent transitions in care and enabling people to continue living well in the setting of their choice are 2 important focus areas of our program for which an innovation like VitalSeer holds a lot of promises", says Patricia Debergue, Aging in Place Challenge program director.

Ensuring medical-grade reliability and accuracy

Reliability and accuracy are critical to expanding VitalSeer's reach. A quick trip to app stores will easily reveal more than 50 apps that can measure vital signs. But they don't share the quality and the scientific approach VitalSeer has behind it, something Dr. Jiang and Dr. Ho are learning as they evaluate many of the commercially available apps and test and validate VitalSeer.

"What differentiates us is the high-accuracy results we achieve, and the rigorous scientific validation we employ." says Dr. Jiang.

Dr. Ho also points out the extreme importance of that scientific validation. There is a difference between consumer-grade devices and medical-grade ones, and healthcare systems must use the latter.

VitalSeer placed as a runner up for the Visionary Industry Technology Award from the International Federation for Emergency Medicine (IFEM) in 2023. Also in 2023, the research team led by Dr. Jiang received a European Union Eureka ITEA grant to further develop VitalSeer. This project, which involves 17 partners across 4 countries, is currently getting underway. The Canadian partners are the NRC, the University of British Colombia and 3 small and medium-sized enterprises. The project will focus on further developing VitalSeer, both as a remote early triage tool and as a continuous health monitoring tool to follow patients on their entire journey, from the onset of symptoms, to hospital and back to their homes.

Through all this work and acclaim, Dr. Jiang is driven by a vision of a pan-Canadian technology platform that can provide an "end-to-end solution" so that older adults at home alone with chest pains at 3 o'clock in the morning can get the help they need.

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