Designing Medical Devices for the Developing World (Part 2)




To provide some context to our discussion of device design for the developing world a review on device designs which have been completed or are still in the development phase may be beneficial. Spearheading the effort in designing medical devices for the developing world can be most notably attributed to academic institutions and nonprofit organizations. Universities across the United States are participating in a movement to become more globally connected and provide opportunities for students and faculty to make an impact in developing countries. As a result some universities have created research groups and/or incorporated new curriculum which focuses solely on creating solutions for the developing world. Duke, MIT, Stanford, and Rice to name a few academic institutions, are a part of this movement and have markedly made an impact in providing novel technology to assist the developing world.

A large amount of work has been carried out by a number of different organizations to develop a low-cost solution for neonatal jaundice treatment in the developing world. The current standard for treatment is phototherapy which utilizes a specific wavelength of light to chemically modify the bilirubin molecule into a form which can be excreted by the body without processing by the liver. The phototherapy units used by most hospitals have a price tag of about $3,000 to $5,000 which is well out of the allotted budget for most developing world hospitals. Therefore, a number of designs have been developed to create a phototherapy device which is drastically less expensive than the typical phototherapy units. One of the most promising solutions is to incorporate an array of LED lights which emit at wavelengths between 400 and 500 nm. Encouraging designs have been developed by groups such as D-rev, a non-profit technology organization, as well as design teams at Duke University and Rice University.  These groups have been able to achieve product designs at a price tag of less than $350, a price which is much more manageable for use in low-resourced hospitals.

Although providing low-cost devices to be used in the treatment of patients in the developing world is important, one should also realize the importance of the devices which test the efficacy and functionality of the devices being used. For example, in order for treatment to be effective when using the phototherapy units just described, a certain light intensity range must be achieved. A device called a bili-meter is utilized to measure the light intensity from the phototherapy units but this device is also very expensive and not something a developing world hospital would readily be able to purchase. In response to this, great strides have been made to develop low-cost bili-meters to measure the efficacy of the phototherapy units. Click the link here for more information on a device which is still in continuing development. Low-cost Bili-meter

An example of a university/industry joint effort to provide a useful tool to developing nations is the CerviScope. The CerviScope is designed to serve the same function as a colposcope or cervical scope which is commonly used by medical practitioners to screen women for cervical cancer. However, these currently used cervical scopes are expensive, not readily transportable, and require a reliable external power source, making it difficult for developing world clinics to acquire and difficult for doctors to screen patients in remote areas.  Dr. David Walmer, a reproductive endocrinologist and founder of Family Health Ministries saw the need for and promoted the development of an inexpensive and portable cervical scope for use in the developing world. The device, which incorporates battery powered illumination, has been designed to be mounted on the user’s head and utilizes a binocular optical assembly which is positioned in front of the eyes of the user. The device has been through several design iterations to improve its quality and usability. The development of the device has been accomplished through the involvements of a Duke University student design team, engineers at Applied Technologies Inc., and continued contributions by Dr. David Walmer.  A link to an article written at the News and Observer describing the earlier generations of the CerviScope can be found at the following link. Cheap Scope Can Spot Cancer

A continued need exists to develop low-cost technologies in the realms of biomedical equipment testing, equipment used in treatment, laboratory diagnostics, surgical tools, and many other areas of medicine. An article by popularmechanics.com is a good resource highlighting a few of the device advances in the developing world and is accessible at the following link Popular Mechanics: 7 Medical Upgrades for Developing Countries. With so many groups and individuals working on projects like these there is great promise that underserved communities across the globe will begin to see improved access of care and treatment.

Authored By: John Sanderson, Technical Associate Applied Technologies Incorporated


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