Pulse oximeter – a solution at your fingertip, literally

Pulse oximeter – a solution at your fingertip, literally

It measures oxygen saturation in blood

One of the answers to COVID-19 is probably at your fingertip, doctors say. With growing experience of dealing with sick people who report to hospitals with breathlessness, experts have recommended the use of a relatively cheap device at home that can forewarn you about any impending crisis – the pulse oximeter.

The small device, which fits into the palm of your hand, measures the oxygen saturation in the blood in a non-invasive manner. All one needs to do is clip the device onto a finger tip, and it will show the SpO2 level (peripheral oxygen saturation), or the oxygen level in the blood. Its role in COVID-19 patients’ health monitoring is significant.

“Silent hypoxia (deprivation of oxygen at the tissue level) has emerged as a major cause of death in COVID-19 patients,” said K. Kolandaswamy, former director of public health. “Usually, when your oxygen falls below 95%, you will have symptoms, breathlessness, a feeling of discomfort certainly. Now, in COVID-19, for some reason, that is not happening. Patients are not feeling the drop in oxygen levels at all until they are dangerously low. When they finally land up in hospital, they sometimes have a SpO2 of 80% or 75%, and are in respiratory distress,” he explained.

The pulse oximeter, priced upwards of ₹1,000, will prevent the patient from reaching this level of distress, he said. Daily monitoring of SpO2 levels will indicate if there is hypoxia, and in case the levels drop below 95%, it would be prudent to seek medical care, he added.

In government hospitals, patients’ SpO2 levels are monitored with a pulse oximeter and recorded at four-hour intervals. At the first sign of a drop in oxygen saturation, the patient is given high flow nasal oxygen in order to improve his or her condition. “We would advise people at home to buy this device and use it to test themselves often. Any drop below 95% is a cause for worry,” said a doctor at the Multi Super Speciality Hospital, Omandurar.

R. Jayanthi, dean, Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital, said intervention at an early stage, or detection of dropping oxygen saturation levels, could prevent deaths. When a cytokine storm occurs, there is supposed to be an “aberrant release of pro-inflammatory factors” that causes damage to the lungs and hypoxia, among other factors. Hence, noticing the drop in oxygen levels is key, experts pointed out. Unless prevented early, a cytokine storm sets in motion a cascade of events that becomes irreversible, and leads to death.

Health Secretary Beela Rajesh said a pilot project had been initiated at Chengalpattu Medical College, under which Bluetooth notifications would be sent to health workers from the pulse oximeter if the levels drop drastically. “All our hospitals and mobile teams have been instructed to use these devices, and they will also form part of the home kit we provide to people advised to go on home quarantine,” she said.

‘Will procure more’

The government will procure more pulse oximeters for the treatment of patients, especially those who are asymptomatic, Health Minister C. Vijayabaskar said. He said the government will launch a scheme under which the device will be provided to asymptomatic patients, who are allowed to remain in home quarantine, with conditions.

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