New Delhi: An everyday medical device, called a pulse oximeter, has recently started gaining attention for its potential in diagnosing and monitoring COVID-19 symptoms. A small equipment that clips onto a person’s finger, pulse oximeter measures pulse and the percentage of oxygen in the blood. It is mostly used for monitoring patients in hospital including those who have had some surgeries and at homes by people with respiratory problems. According to medical experts, the device helps the healthcare provider to decide whether the patient needs extra oxygen.
How Pulse Oximeters Measure Oxygen Levels?
Dr. Arvind Kumar, Director, Institute of Robotic Surgery and the Chairman of Centre for Chest Surgery and Lung Transplantation at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, New Delhi said that a pulse oximeter measures blood oxygen saturation and heart rate by shining a light through the skin and detecting both the colour and movement of your blood cells. Blood cells with a good amount of oxygens are bright red while other are dark red. The pulse oximeter compares the number of bright red cells to dark red cells to calculate oxygen saturation as a percentage, he said. So, if the reading says 95 per cent, it means that 5 per cent of the blood cells have been depleted of oxygen. He added,
Pulse oximeter helps in detecting hypoxia, a condition in which the body is deprived of adequate oxygen supply.
According to Dr. Kumar, the normal blood oxygen saturation level for someone who is healthy will be around 95–100 per cent. The oxygen level below 95 per cent indicates that there is a lung problem. A level below 92 per cent would suggest that the person is seriously ill and may need supplementary oxygen or to be monitored in the hospital.
A pulse oximeter runs on battery and provides real-time results on a small LED (light-emitting diode) display on the device itself.
What Role Does A Pulse Oximeter Play In The Fight Against COVID-19?
Dr. Surya Kant, Professor and Head of Department of Respiratory Medicine, King George’s Medical University (KGMU) Lucknow explained that a pulse oximeter is part of a larger screening and testing process of COVID-19 patients and cannot detect the disease on its own. He said,
A pulse oximeter may indicate issues with blood oxygen levels which could be related to coronavirus because COVID-19 is not the only disease that causes low blood oxygen levels. Other diseases like Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma and other non-COVID-19 lung infection can also result in low oxygen count.
He added that pulse oximeter is recommended for the early detection of ‘COVID Pneumonia’, a potentially deadly condition seen among the most severe coronavirus cases.
In a video interaction with the Health Ministers and Health Secretaries of the States on April 24, Union Health Minister Dr. Harsh Vardhan said that the portable pulse oximeter can help in early diagnosis of the corona patients which can help to curb the mortality rate due to COVID-19.
According to Dr. Kumar, patients suffering hypoxia need to be identified and given oxygen supply. He said,
In many cases, the patients may feel comfortable and may not realise that they have developed hypoxia. This means that the lungs of the patients are tending to involve in the disease. Relying only on clinical tests or waiting for advanced symptoms like shortness of breath to occur may delay the treatment and the patient may become critical due to the loss of this precious time. Regular monitoring of oxygen level will help medical staff to take actions sooner instead of waiting for shortness of breath or pneumonia to occur. This will also help in curbing the sudden increase in distress.
Explaining further, Dr. Kumar gave an example of the 31-year-old police constable who died at Ram Manohar Lohia (RML) Hospital, Delhi on Tuesday (May 5). He said,
The young constable showed no COVID-19 symptoms until Monday evening. Within the next few hours, he had spiked a fever and developed breathing problems prompting his family to rush him to the hospital where he was declared brought dead. I think that he was in a hypoxic state which went undetected in time.
Should You Buy A Pulse Oximeter?
Dr. Surya Kant says that buying a pulse oximeter for using at home is not necessary at all. He said,
There is no need to panic and buy pulse oximeter for home use. If a COVID-19 positive patient feels uncomfortable, they can have their assessment done at the nearby hospital. All hospitals and most doctors have pulse oximeter.