RMIT has developed a thermal-imaging tool, for screening chronic wounds, that could help nurses identify hard-to-heal sores during first assessments in patients’ homes. Almost half a million Australians live with chronic wounds, which significantly affect their quality of life and cost the nation’s health system around $3 billion each year.
The innovation, developed by RMIT University and Bolton Clarke Research Institute, builds on both teams’ work that was published last year. This enabled the identification of chronic leg sores, “By the second week” after the baseline assessment – a week earlier than before.
Lead researcher, Professor Dinesh Kumar, from RMIT’s School of Engineering, stated their latest clinical study, published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports, presents an AI-powered system to predict how leg ulcers will heal based on thermal images from the first assessment. He said, “Our new work that identifies chronic leg wounds during the first visit is a world-first achievement. This means that specialised treatment for slow-healing leg ulcers can begin up to four weeks earlier than the current gold standard.”
His co-researcher, RMIT’s Dr Quoc Cuong Ngo, said that while thermal imaging had previously been considered for detecting chronic wounds, the team’s methods enabled significantly earlier detection than other approaches that have been researched: “Our innovation is not sensitive to changes in ambient temperature and light, so it is effective for nurses to use during their regular visits to people’s homes. It is also effective in tropical environments, not just here in Melbourne.”
How it works
The new innovation provides information on spatial heat distribution in a wound and predicts, with 78 per cent accuracy, whether leg ulcers would heal in 12 weeks without specialised treatment. Wounds change significantly over the healing trajectory – higher temperatures signal potential inflammation or infection, while lower temperatures can indicate a slower healing rate due to decreased oxygen in the region.
The research was based on thermal images collected from 56 clients with venous leg ulcers – a type of ulcer associated with poor vein function. This type of ulcer is the most common chronic wound in Australia. The current gold-standard approach requires taking tracings of the wound size after four weeks, involving physical contact with the wound, which delays identification of slow-healing wounds.
Dr Rajna Ogrin, Bolton Clarke Research Institute Senior Research Fellow, said that the non-contact method reduces infection risk by minimising physical contact: “Clinical care is provided in many different locations, including specialist clinics, general practices and in people’s homes. This method provides a quick, objective, non-invasive way to determine the wound-healing potential of chronic leg wounds that can be used by healthcare providers, irrespective of the setting.
“This means specialised treatments, including advanced wound-cleaning techniques and therapies, can be implemented immediately for problematic leg wounds – up to four weeks earlier than the current gold standard.”
Kumar said that now the method had been successfully demonstrated in controlled trials with partner clinicians, the next step was to adapt it for a busy nurse or doctor to have this thermal imaging and rapid assessment capability on their mobile phones.
He said, “With the funding we have received from the Medical Research Future Fund, we are now working towards that. We are keen to work with prospective partners with different expertise to help us achieve this goal within the next few years.”
The team will also assess whether their method can predict healing of diabetes-related foot ulcers. Untreated chronic wounds in people living with diabetes are the leading cause of limb amputation in Western countries.
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