Identifying headache sufferers who need urgent care

A new CERA research project is using an AI-powered smart camera to help emergency departments identify headache sufferers who need urgent care.


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At one point in your life, you may experience a headache serious enough to visit a hospital.

For most people, it won’t be life threatening, but a small percentage may require urgent treatment for a brain haemorrhage or a tumour.

Helping identify the people who require urgent care is the goal of a new CERA study, featuring an AI-powered smart camera and supported by a grant from the Ramaciotti Foundation.

The AI algorithm powering the ‘smart camera’ has already been trialled in the lab and will soon be put to the test in real-world settings.

“With the support from the Ramaciotti Foundation Grant, we can determine the feasibility of implementing the camera in a busy emergency department,” says project leader Dr Lisa Zhuoting Zhu.

Pain medication or urgent care

Dr Zhu says many Australians may get a headache bad enough to warrant a trip to their local hospital at least once in their life.

After being triaged, referred to have a CT scan and then enduring the nervous wait for results, most patients will generally be diagnosed with a ‘primary headache’.

Primary headaches include migraines and tension headaches and – while serious – are often resolved with pain medication and rest.

However, Dr Zhu says a small percentage of patients are diagnosed with a ‘secondary headache’, such as a brain haemorrhage or a tumour, which often lead to a life-threatening amount of pressure on the brain.

“We want to help emergency department physicians screen these patients as soon as possible, because a delayed diagnosis could potentially be fatal,” says Dr Zhu.

Victoria Fellowship: Dr Lisa Zhuoting Zhu and Hon Ben Carroll MP, Minister for Industry & Innovation.
Rapid diagnosis

In the study, Dr Zhu’s team will use the smart camera to help emergency department physicians pinpoint a tell-tale sign of high pressure in the brain called ‘papilledima’ – a swelling of the optic disc, located in the retina at the back of the eye.

Dr Zhu says that every emergency department already has the tool to examine a patient’s optic disc, however, the available technology makes it extremely difficult for physicians to perform the exam and interpret the data – so the check is rarely performed.

The goal of Dr Zhu’s research is that the physician would only need to tell the patient to move into position, and then the camera would automatically take a picture and send it to the AI algorithm for interpretation.

“Thirty to 60 seconds later, the patient could have a diagnosis of papilledema,” says Dr Zhu.

Looking towards the future

After trialling the smart camera in the emergency department for at least six months, Dr Zhu plans to refine the algorithm and then aim towards potentially bringing the camera into more emergency departments throughout Australia.

Dr Zhu was recently awarded a prestigious Victoria Fellowship in Life Sciences from veski to advance her work using AI technology to predict chronological age based on images of the retina, and aims to apply this technology to even more uses.

“In the near future, we can hopefully make an even bigger impact by trialling the smart camera in emergency departments to detect not only life-threatening but also sight-threatening conditions.”

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