Mayo Clinic-supported app aims to replace BMI with more accurate metric

It’s no secret that Body Mass Index is an imperfect measure of an individual’s health — and that’s not terribly surprising, given the fact that the standard was developed nearly 200 years ago. Since then, advances in science and healthcare have shown us the limitations of BMI, but they’ve failed to provide us with an easily achievable alternative that can replace it. Fortunately, a new iPad app developed in tandem with the Mayo Clinic and other global healthcare organizations is aiming to buck that trend.

The app is called BVI Pro, and in simple terms it’s able to measure body composition on the Body Volume Indicator scale using the iPad’s camera. Take two pictures of the individual — one head-on and another in profile — and, alongside information like age and reported activity, the software is able to generate an accurate snapshot of fat distribution, as well as any associated health risks.

According to BVI America, the company responsible for creating the app with 3D measurement firm and parent company Select Research, BVI is much more useful as a measure compared to BMI because it targets visceral fat — the fat stored within the abdomen and around the organs. Visceral fat is considered to be the most potentially life-threatening type in the body but, as Select Research CEO Richard Barnes explains, until now, it has always required expensive, large machinery to accurately measure.

“Most of the [body scanners used for BVI] are based on 16 to 20 cameras,” Barnes told Digital Trends. “What we’ve done over the last four years is we’ve made that software to just require two cameras instead of 16. And we’ve used an iPad to take two pictures that effectively then mesh the images together and create a 3D image of the person.”

According to Barnes, BVI America has validated its findings throughout the development process by comparing individuals’ data achieved through the app with data produced by MRI scanners. The results are pretty consistent already, but Barnes said BVI Pro will only become more accurate as it is continually used, and the machine learning that powers it becomes more adept at matching body shape with volume.

“The approach we’ve taken on it is exactly the same that’s been done with Siri and Shazam, where we use machine learning over time to improve and validate,” Barnes said. “We have some experts involved in the business who were involved in those applications and others.”

The end result is an app that lowers the cost of entry to what could be a new medical standard going forward — one that could replace or at least supplement BMI and deliver much more useful and actionable data to healthcare professionals as well as their patients.

“The Achilles heel of BVI was basically that it couldn’t be done anywhere, whereas BMI, simple as it is, could be done anywhere — someone could always take their height and weight if they’re at home or in the office,” Barnes said.

BMI persists partially because it is so easy to calculate, and life insurance companies even continue to use it to determine policy rates. Many experts, like Amanda Salis, associate professor at The Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise & Eating Disorders at Sydney University, maintain that its value lies in estimating the health and obesity of a population, rather than an individual.

Barnes agrees, and he believes the app itself and the concept behind BVI is so simple that as people try it, they’ll understand it. Meanwhile, the professional and scientific communities will serve as a proving ground for the software, making it better through continued usage. The Mayo Clinic has already committed to helping to develop BVI into a global standard by 2020.

“Although we’ve got a huge amount of data on which we base [BVI Pro], we don’t have hundreds of thousands or millions of bits of data,” Barnes said. “We need that to get different populations and to adjust the algorithms and make it really work.”

BVI Pro is now live on the App Store for iPad for free. Although it’s primarily intended for professional use, using the app is as simple as taking a couple pictures. Barnes said that going forward, BVI America is considering more consumer-oriented mobile applications as well.

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