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How a baby monitor became a tool to track the health of covid patients

Raybaby, developed by the three-women founding team of Bengaluru startup RioT Solutions, has pivoted to become useful both in the covid-19 sickroom and in neonatal care

The device is being used at HCG Hospital and has just completed an observational trial at Cloudnine Hospital, both in Bengaluru.
The device is being used at HCG Hospital and has just completed an observational trial at Cloudnine Hospital, both in Bengaluru.

It was earlier this year, in the early days of the pandemic, that the three-women team behind Raybaby, an IoT (Internet of Things) based baby monitor, realized that their device could be used to track the respiratory rate of covid-19 patients and provide vital data to doctors about treatment and prognosis.

Raybaby, which was launched at the prestigious American tech conference CES in 2017 (and was a finalist in the 2019 CES in the Baby Tech category), was developed as a high-tech baby monitor by three Bengaluru-based engineers: Aardra Kannan Ambili, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) scientist, Ranjana Nair, a computer science engineer specializing in gesture-based technology, and Sanchi Poovaya, a mechanical engineer. The Raybaby is based on advanced radar and motion sensor technology and is different from regular baby monitors (which are usually simple camera devices) in that it is able to capture the baby’s breathing rate and analyse the breathing pattern.

The team had a eureka moment when it realized, after reading a paper on the topic published from Wuhan, China, that the respiration rate can also be used to monitor the progress of covid-19 in infected patients.

The respiration/breathing rate or the number of breaths per minute (the normal range is 11-21 breaths per minute in a resting state in a healthy individual) is a vital sign, along with others like blood pressure and oxygen saturation that are used to track patient health in hospitals and ICUs, but is not as widely used in the medical system. In fact, a 2008 article in the Medical Journal Of Australia calls it “the neglected vital sign". The reason, says Ambili, is that most devices which measure the respiratory rate are contact devices that are usually strapped to the patient’s chest and are uncomfortable. The Raybaby, however, is a non-contact device that uses low-power radio waves along with advanced motion sensors that can track micro-movements to measure the respiration rate of a patient from a distance of 3ft or less.

Founding Team: (from left) Sanchi Poovaya, Ranjana Nair and Aardra Kannan Ambili.
Founding Team: (from left) Sanchi Poovaya, Ranjana Nair and Aardra Kannan Ambili.

The device incorporates AI to analyse breathing patterns and offer useful insights: As a baby monitor, it can show parents how their baby is sleeping, how to improve sleep routines and sleep training; in the clinical scenario, it can use respiratory rate data to monitor an infant or adult patient’s overall health and predict outcomes.

The RioT team has just completed an observational trial of the device at the neonatal intensive care unit (Nicu) of Cloudnine Hospital in Bengaluru, covering 760 hours of breath monitoring among preterm babies to test its efficacy in preventing Respiratory Distress Syndrome, a major cause of death in the first month of life.

“Respiration rate can predict adverse health events hours before they occur, and in that sense is a more predictive vital sign than even blood pressure or heart rate," says Ambili. For instance, if you monitor the respiration rate of cardiac patients, it can predict a heart attack hours before it actually occurs as the number of breaths per minute goes up in this scenario. “Recent data has shown the importance of monitoring respiratory rate variability (RRV) as a useful predictor of the deterioration of patients. Respiratory rate, in comparison to blood pressure or pulse rate, is deemed as the better determinant in identifying high-risk patients," says a 2018 peer-reviewed paper on the US National Library of Medicine website.

The device is currently being used by doctors at HCG hospital in Bengaluru in the covid-19 ward. The Raybaby team has developed an app for use by medical professionals that gives them a dashboard to monitor patients under their care using data from the device. “If the breathing rate of a patient goes over a particular threshold, the app sends a notification to the doctor’s phone, alerting them that they need to check on the patient. It significantly reduces the burden on medical teams," explains Ambili. Since covid-19 is a disease that aggressively attacks the respiratory system, tracking the respiration rate is an important way to monitor the well-being of patients.

Although there has been interest from individual users for the device, Ambili says that for now it will be used under medical supervision only. In the future, they feel the underlying technology can be used not just by parents to monitor babies but by adults in medical scenarios such as sleep apnoea. “Since the monitor picks up pauses in breathing and captures breathing data every 5 seconds, it can be well-suited to track the breathing patterns of sleep apnoea patients at a very granular level. The accuracy is very high," says Ambili.

For now, the team is happy that at a time when startups are finding it tough to raise funding or even stay viable, Raybaby has found a way to pivot itself and stay relevant while providing an important service. “Currently, we are trying to ramp up production in order to meet the demand. As a startup, that’s certainly good news for us," says Ambili.

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