Skip to Content
Artificial intelligence

An app can tell if you might have anemia by looking at your fingernails

December 4, 2018

Anemia is the most common blood disorder, affecting an estimated 2 billion people who lack enough healthy red blood cells or hemoglobin. It’s usually diagnosed by blood tests, but a new smartphone app can provide a diagnosis just from a photo of people’s fingernails, according to a new paper in Nature Communications.

How does it work? The algorithm, created by Wilbur Lam and colleagues at Emory University, detects anemia by assessing the concentration of hemoglobin from the color of people’s fingernail beds, using photos taken on a smartphone. Fingernail color is a good indicator of overall hemoglobin levels because our nails don’t contain any melanin-producing skin cells that would mask the color.

Testing: The four-week study involved 337 people with a range of blood conditions, including 72 healthy control subjects. The researchers report that the app outperformed physicians assessing hemoglobin levels from a physical exam—although it’s not as good as a blood test. But it is as good as, or even better than, a number of FDA-approved diagnostic tools on the market today, the paper claims. You can see it in action here.

The implications: Diagnosis by smartphone comes with some obvious benefits. It’s much more accessible and cheaper than seeing a doctor. It could be especially useful in remote areas lacking easy access to medical facilities. Patients with an existing diagnosis could also use the app to monitor their condition.  

Diagnosis by algorithm: We’re only going to see these sorts of smartphone apps become more ubiquitous, fueled by the rise of AI in health care. The devices in our pockets are already being used to diagnose all sorts of conditions, including depression, HIV, and nearsightedness.

Deep Dive

Artificial intelligence

Why Meta’s latest large language model survived only three days online

Galactica was supposed to help scientists. Instead, it mindlessly spat out biased and incorrect nonsense.

A bot that watched 70,000 hours of Minecraft could unlock AI’s next big thing

Online videos are a vast and untapped source of training data—and OpenAI says it has a new way to use it.

Responsible AI has a burnout problem

Companies say they want ethical AI. But those working in the field say that ambition comes at their expense.

Biotech labs are using AI inspired by DALL-E to invent new drugs

Two groups have announced powerful new generative models that can design new proteins on demand not seen in nature.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.