Afib? There’s an App for That

Sep. 18, 2017
$2 Million Grant Funds Effort to Create Mobile App to Detect Irregular Heartbeat
A man looking at a tablet

Today, tablets are ubiquitous. While many of us reach for them to scan Facebook, watch the newest series on Netflix, or make a quick purchase on Amazon, researchers want to test their potential for a more serious task: detecting atrial fibrillation (afib).

With a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, scientists from the University of Rochester Medical Center and Rochester Institute of Technology will enroll up to 300 people at risk for afib to test a new tablet-based video monitoring technology. Their goal is to create an inexpensive, easy-to-use detection system that can alert health care providers of the onset of afib, allowing for early treatment.

Afib is an irregular heartbeat that can lead to blood clots, stroke and heart failure. Because the likelihood of afib increases with age and people are living longer today, experts predict the number of cases will rise dramatically over the next several years. Current estimates suggest it affects more than 3 million Americans.

Jean-Phillippe Couderc, Ph.D., M.B.A.
Jean-Phillippe Couderc, Ph.D., M.B.A.

How will it work?

You can’t see it with the naked eye, but the color of our skin fluctuates with every heartbeat.

The research team developed a technology that uses the camera in tablets to capture changes in heartbeat by measuring subtle variations in skin tone. 

They’ll test the technology on individuals with afib who undergo electrical cardioversion or ablation – procedures that restore a normal heartbeat. Even after treatment, 20 to 30 percent of patients will have a recurrence of afib. Following their procedures, individuals will be sent home with a tablet that will automatically record facial videos when they read emails, browse the internet or watch videos.

Participants will also wear an ECG patch – the gold standard for monitoring afib. Researchers will compare data from the patch and the tablet to determine how accurate the tablet technology is in detecting afib.

“Our technology is unique because it requires no action on the part of the user aside from what they normally do – go on a tablet to shop, look at pictures, read articles, or whatever they like,” said Jean-Phillippe Couderc, Ph.D., M.B.A., leader of the study and associate professor of cardiology in the Heart Research Follow-up Program at URMC. “Ultimately, we’d like to develop an app. If you are at risk for afib, you install it on your tablet or phone and don’t think about it anymore.”

Couderc has conducted a series of smaller studies that confirm that afib can be detected from video of an individual’s face. The new clinical study will move the technology closer to commercialization. Couderc received additional funding from NIH’s Concept to Clinic: Commercializing Innovation (C3i) Program, which will provide training and tools to help bring this concept to market.

The video monitoring technology was developed in the laboratory of Gill Tsouri, associate professor in the Department of Electrical & Microelectronic Engineering at RIT. Tsouri and Couderc acknowledge that their technology may not be superior to the ECG patch, but it will be much cheaper, since it utilizes the standard web camera found in all phones and tablets and doesn’t require additional hardware or sensors.

Burr W. Hall, M.D., associate professor of Cardiology at URMC and a member of the UR Medicine Heart & Vascular team will enroll patients in the study. He says this work is important because afib is extremely common, especially in people who are over the age of 65 and have heart failure, diabetes or vascular disease.

“Many people who have afib don’t know it, and that’s a big problem because they’re at high risk for stroke,” noted Hall. “With this technology we could screen a large number of people, identify affected patients and prescribe blood thinners to minimize the risk of stroke. This could have huge benefits for public health.” 

# # #

The University of Rochester Medical Center is home to approximately 3,000 individuals who conduct research on everything from cancer and heart disease to Parkinson’s, pandemic influenza and autism. Spread across many centers, institutes and labs, our scientists have developed therapies that have improved human health locally, in the region and across the globe. To learn more, visit