When you’re in pain, you can usually tell someone about it. But for people with communication difficulties, that isn’t always an option which means that pain often goes misinterpreted, undetected or wrongly treated.
To give a voice to those who can’t report their suffering, such as people with dementia, PainChek, an Australian startup, has developed an app that uses facial analysis and artificial intelligence (AI) to assess and score pain levels.
Calculating pain score
A caregiver records a short video of the subject’s face using a smartphone and answers questions about their behavior, movements and speech. The app’s AI recognizes facial muscle movements that are associated with pain and combines this with the caregiver’s observations to calculate an overall pain score.
According to the company, PainChek can detect pain with over 90 percent accuracy and more than 180,000 pain assessments have been completed worldwide on over 66,000 people. The app was designed for use with elderly people needing care.
Typically, assessing pain in dementia patients with severe communication impairment involves caregivers and healthcare professionals observing their facial expressions and behavior, and interpreting the results according to a standardized scale.
A better alternative
A team of scientists from the school of pharmacy at Curtin University in Western Australia started developing PainChek in 2012. They wanted to find a better alternative to subjective paper-based assessments.
“It’s very difficult for humans to decode the emotions of the person’s face,” explains Peter Shergill, PainChek’s business development director. “So the tool applies artificial intelligence and algorithms to decode the face based on decades of research.”
A 2017 validation study by PainChek’s inventors, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, found the app provided reliable evidence of the presence of pain. The technology is classified as a medical device in Europe, Australia, and Canada and is offered to care homes as a monthly subscription for about $4 per resident.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates around 50 million people globally have dementia, and there are nearly 10 million new cases every year. A 2012 study estimated up to 80 percent of people living in nursing homes with dementia regularly experience pain.
“Globally, the assessment of pain in people living with dementia is not strong,” says Mr. Shergill. “Where pain goes undetected or untreated in people living with dementia, it can manifest in difficult-to-control behaviors, which subsequently people try to control with antipsychotic medication, which brings further risks.”
PainChek says its technology is currently being used in over 722 care homes globally. Last August, it launched in the United Kingdom, where it has been used by around 1,000 patients so far.
The company is also looking to develop products targeting other groups. It has been carrying out research at a pediatric hospital in Melbourne to help develop an app to identify pain in children under three.