Say cheese: ‘Surgery selfies’ help identify infections early

Sending your doctor a post-incision photo can actually be good for your health, according to a new study.

Dave Yasvinski 3 minute read November 18, 2021
surgery selfies

Post-surgical complications are a leading cause of death. Surgery selfies could help change that. (Getty)

A picture is worth a thousand words to researchers who say that surgery selfies — photos of post-surgical wounds taken by patients — can help identify and mitigate the risk of infection.

The research, published in NPJ Digital Medicine, found that the use of such selfies was associated with fewer trips to the doctor, improved access to medical advice and could be an effective way to reduce the burden of patient care placed on strained healthcare facilities.

Death within 30 days of surgery is the third largest cause of death in the world, according to the study, with infections from a surgical wound accounting for one-third of these deaths. These infections take a huge financial toll because they often require longer periods of hospitalization, subsequent readmission and additional treatment.

To see if taking surgical selfies could lighten this load, researchers at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland conducted a randomized trial of 492 patients who were admitted for emergency abdominal surgery. The intervention group consisted of 223 patients who were contacted three, seven and 15 days after surgery and directed to an online survey that asked about their wound and any symptoms related to surgery. They were also asked to upload a picture of the surgery site for infection assessment by a member of their surgical team. They were then contacted after 30 days to see if they were diagnosed with an infection.

The control group consisted of 269 patients who were given routine care before being contacted after 30 days to determine if an infection resulted from surgery.

Although there was no significant difference between groups in the overall time it took to diagnose an infection within 30 days, patients in the smartphone group were almost four times more likely than the control group to have an infection diagnosed within the first seven days. This group also required fewer follow-up visits with a general practitioner and reported a better experience accessing post-surgical care.

“Our study shows the benefits of using mobile technology for follow-up after surgery,” said Ewen Harrison, a professor of surgery and data science at the University of Edinburgh. “Recovery can be an anxious time for everybody. These approaches provide reassurance — after all, most of us don’t know what a normally healing wound looks like a few weeks after surgery. We hope that picking up wound problems early can result in treatments that limit complications.”

The team is currently conducting follow-up research to determine the best way to implement its surgical selfie system using artificial intelligence to assist clinicians responsible for infection assessment. “Using mobile phone apps around the time of surgery is becoming common — we are working to scale this within the NHS, given the benefits for patients in continuing to be directly connected with the hospital team treating them.”

The practice is just one more way to potentially alleviate the pressures the virus has placed on hospitals around the world. “Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, there have been big changes in how care after surgery is delivered,” said Kenneth McLean, co-leader of the research. “Patients and staff have become used to having remote consultations and we’ve shown we can effectively and safely monitor wounds after surgery while patients recover at home — this is likely to become the new normal.”

Dave Yasvinski is a writer


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