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A Sensitive Matter: New Probe is Using Computer Vision, 3D Geometry, and Vapor Sensors to Fight Old Medical Foe

In 1870s, the famous French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, who influenced his young student Sigmund Freud so much that Freud named his son after him, took on a painful subject – the pressure ulcer. “I have often been a witness to this fact, occurring among the aged persons in this hospital,” he wrote.

Charcot believed that the ulcers, also known as bed sores, were the result of damage to the brain. He got that wrong, but his meticulous research taught doctors about the importance of “timely intervention” to fight them. Doctors at a VA hospital in Augusta, Ga., are using a high-tech probe to stay ahead of the potentially lethal condition.

The probe, which was developed by a team of scientists at GE Global Research and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Center for Innovation, combines computer vision with motion detection, thermal profiling, image classification, 3-D object reconstruction and vapor detection to flag patients at risk and improve treatment. It has built-in analytics software to analyze gathered data.

The probe could also help doctors design hospital protocols that could eliminate bed sores altogether.


Top: A composite image showing the probe’s multiple sensing capabilities. Image credit: GE Global Research Above: Jean-Martin Charcot made detailed observations of pressure ulcers. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

“The hope is that technology can help caregivers be more fully aware of what’s happening with their patients,” says Ting Yu, computer scientist at GE Global Research and the principal investigator on the program. “The device can help detect the earliest signs of ulcer formation. It also provides a more objective and comprehensive assessment of the wound to understand its progression.”

Hospital-acquired pressure ulcers can appear when patients remain in the same position for longer periods while in bed or seated. Pressure can build on the skin, particularly over bony areas, until the skin breaks, creating a fast-growing open wound.


A 3D Image, which can help enable a more objective assessment of a wound’s dimension changes over time. Image credit: GE Global Research

Hospitals generally advise caregivers to turn patients every two to four hours to prevent ulcers. If they appear, doctors and nurses monitor healing by manually measuring and recording the dimensions of visible lesions. “By combining physical inspection with the technology capable of allowing real-time monitoring, [we] may prevent ulcers from forming or advancing,” says Carolyn Clancy, VA’s Interim Under Secretary for Health.

Bed sores are a serious medical problem. They afflict an estimated 2.5 million Americans every year. More than 60,000 cases lead to death from them and their complications.


The probe can study the skin surface. A red-green-blue  image sensor provides an analysis the wound’s tissue composition. Image credit: GE Global Research

The GE and VA teams have been working on the probe for two years. They are now testing it at the Augusta VA Medical Center in Georgia. The hand-held probe works in tandem with a stationary camera installed in a patient’s room. The camera gives doctors a real-time view of the room and ensures the patient is repositioned regularly. The wand is equipped with a color detector, a 3D geometry sensor, chemical and thermal sensors, and other detectors that allow caregivers to quickly scan patients for early signs of bed sores and track progress of open ulcer wounds.

Data from the system helps caregivers determine the best course of action.“Computer vision systems connected to cameras can already solve security and surveillance problems,” Yu says. “With GE Healthcare, we’re looking into how it can help [the healthcare business] operate better and improve patient safety.”

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