A new app, developed by a team at the University of Washington (UW), aims to one day help parents screen for jaundice in newborn babies at home. Called BiliCam​, the app works using a smartphone’s camera and flash, as well as a small color calibration card.

Virtually every baby gets jaundiced due to excess amounts of the chemical bilirubin, but “we're sending them home from the hospital even before bilirubin levels reach their peak," explains James Taylor, MD, in a prepared statement. "This smartphone test is really for babies in the first few days after they go home. A parent or health care provider can get an accurate picture of bilirubin to bridge the gap after leaving the hospital." Taylor is a professor of pediatrics and medical director of the newborn nursery at UW Medical Center.

To use the app, the parent or a healthcare professional downloads the app, puts the color calibration card on the infant’s stomach, and then takes a picture with that card in view. “The card calibrates and accounts for different lighting conditions and skin tones,” states a press release describing the app. “Data from the photo are sent to the cloud and are analyzed by machine-learning algorithms,” and then parents will receive a report on the newborn's bilirubin levels.

"This is a way to provide peace of mind for the parents of newborns," says Shwetak Patel, PhD, a UW associate professor of computer science and engineering and of electrical engineering, in a prepared statement. "The advantage of doing the analysis in the cloud is that our algorithms can be improved over time."

To test the app, UW scientists studied 100 babies using a blood test, the jaundice screening tool currently used in hospitals, as well as BiliCam to check for jaundice in infants 2–5 days old. BiliCam worked as well as or better than the reliable hospital screening method, and while it cannot replace a blood test, it can alert parents that a blood test is needed. The researchers now plan to test up to 1,000 more babies, and they plan to include more infants with darker skin pigments in order to ensure the app works for all skin colors and ethnicities.

If additional research continues to back the app’s accuracy, BiliCam could be put into practical use within a year as an alternative to current screening procedures. It will require Food and Drug Administration approval for BiliCam to be used at home by parents on their smartphones, which could take a couple of years, according to a press release.