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How thermal imaging could help improve post-caesarean care

Thursday 29 November 2018

Reading time: 2 minutes

A new technique could give clinicians a fast, reliable way of spotting wound infections — and could even help rationalise the use of antibiotics

A clinician using a thermal imaging camera

Infected caesarean wounds can present major problems for new mothers. As well as causing physical pain, they often require a return to hospital, disrupting family bonding and causing emotional distress at a particularly sensitive time.

Now a cross-discipline team has developed a method that could identify these infections before they become a problem. It uses thermal imaging cameras to spot early signs of infection, so that clinicians can see whether patients are at risk before they leave hospital.

In fact, the team believes thermal images could show signs of potential infection just 48 hours after surgery.

"Caesarean wound infections usually develop after the woman has been discharged from hospital," says Charmaine Childs, Professor of Clinical Science at Sheffield Hallam University, and the study's lead researcher.

"By using the thermal imaging technique, clinicians could better monitor patients at the bedside immediately after surgery. The short stays in hospital after the birth of a baby make this technique an important step forward."

For patients, the technique causes very little disruption, with clinicians able to capture effective images from as much as a metre away. The team is also working on machine learning processes that could increase the speed and consistency of thermal image analysis.

The study could even contribute towards a general reduction in antibiotic prescribing.

"It will also help to identify the patients who are in greatest need of antibiotics," says Childs. 

"That knowledge will help rationalise prescribing, therefore preventing the overprescribing and sometimes unnecessary use of these precious drugs."

While trials have focused on caesarean procedures, the study team believes the technique could also be applied to patients undergoing other types of surgery. Childs points out that surgical wound infections are the third most frequent healthcare-associated infection, imposing a significant burden on NHS resources.

There are also plans to open up the research to explore the effects of obesity on wound healing in a range of surgical specialties.

The Medical Research Council-funded project includes scientists, clinicians, engineers and computer scientists from Sheffield Hallam University, University of Sheffield, University of Huddersfield and Sheffield Teaching Hospitals.

It has won the Journal of Wound Care award for Innovation in Surgical Site Infection and Best Clinical Research. It has also been shortlisted for Research Project of the Year: STEM in the Times Higher Education Awards.

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