Thursday, November 20, 2014

Health Innovation: Automated Medical Equipment could save many lives

By Esther Nakkazi

Christine Nabbanja is a twenty-two year old, fourth year, biomedical engineering student at Makerere University. She is also part of a group of five innovative students, teamed up to offer global health solutions to the world.

Their innovation is an automatic switch for an electrical suction pump. Suctions are used to clear the airway of blood, saliva, vomit or other secretions so that a patient can breathe during respiratory failure or surgery.

In Uganda’s health systems, the problem is immense as they represent at least 25 percent of all failed equipment in hospitals. Although they can be switched off, when health workers are using them, they tend to forget and the system clogs, delaying the job at hand and threatening the life of the patient.

Others on the team were Brian Nkwanga Senabulya the team leader, Andrew Nyorigo, Patrick Ssonko and Engineer Johnes Obonguloch the Principal Investigator.

So the team of five came up with a solution, to add on an automatic switch to the suction pump, so that when the bottle fills with fluids, it automatically switches off, says Nabbanja who is attending the second Hack-a-thon at Mbarara University of Science and Technology 22-24 August 2014.

It was organised by the Consortium for Affordable Medical Technologies (CAMTech) Uganda and Mbarara University in partnership with Mass General Hospital’s Centre for Global Health. Other participating groups were the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard Medical School and Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT) in India.

It was my first time to attend a Hack-a-thon and I was really impressed. But I also ask what next?

Mbarara University 2014 Hack-a-thon cake
A Hack-a-thon enables teams made up of engineers, entrepreneurs, professors, clinicians to come up with innovations in just 24 hours that impact on global health to save millions of lives. What happens is teams pitch ideas to a group of judges. These are ideated and turned into prototypes and are again presented with business models that have the potential to transform health outcomes around the world.

To date, over 1,000 innovators have participated in CAM Tech hack-a-thons across Uganda, India and the United States and they have spawned many new technologies addressing different health problems.

Nabbanja and her team conceived the automated suction pump idea during the first Hack-a-thon held at Mbarara University last year. It won the second position and the first prototype has already been developed using the seed funding awarded to them.

The Pro-creation lab opened at Mbarara University 
Professor Fredrick Kayanja, the Vice Chancellor, Mbarara University says it is a practical innovation needed locally that could change hospitals and the way health workers work and save many lives.

He is also glad that it was hatched at a Hack-a-thon, which helps young people become better thinkers and emancipates fear from them.

For students ‘it changes the mindset about their education. People who did not think they were innovators become innovators,’ explains the director CAMTech, Elizabeth Bailey. And entrepreneurship skills are learnt because teams create viable business plans, she added.

“In this game, failure is totally acceptable. It also offers a neutral space where people do not fear failure,” says Bailey.

Kristian Olson the Medical Director of CAMTech, and Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School says human resource is a limiting factor in resource limited settings.

Prof Kayanja and Prof Bangsberg
He explains that this is not a unique problem and agrees that the automated suction pump innovation by the students is a good idea. “Empowerment is transitional. The fact is that there is so much drive and to see that young people want to solve their own problems is intangible.”

Although the Hack-a-thons started only last year in Uganda and at Mbarara University, Dr. Data Santorino, a lecturer at Mbarara University and country director CAMTech says the idea is picking up.

At least 200 clinicians, engineers, entrepreneurs and end users participated in 2014 up from 150 last year, 29 from 23 projects were presented and at least 70 pitches of innovative ideas were made to judges by individual students.

More university students are attending and more local companies are getting interested to sponsor the event, says Santorino as he promotes strategic partnerships to improve global health. "Innovation is not a one person affair. As African innovators we need partnerships that support our weak areas. There is so much we can contribute to Global Health.

“At a Hack-a-thon ideas are from the bottom to the top of the pyramid through a chain to commercialisation,” says Dr. David Bangsberg, the Director at Mass General Hospital (MGH)’s Centre for Global Health. His challenge is to find more cooperate partners to pick them up and commercialise them.

“My dream is to see an ecosystem where an innovator can take an idea, find the right expertise to ideate it, test it, move it with small seed capital, scale it with cooperate sponsorship,” says Bangsberg.

But that is not all. “With technology it is different,” says Nabbanja. “When an innovation comes from Uganda, even us Ugandan we do not trust it. It is as if it should have the face of a white person to be trusted.”

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