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Automated medical equipment could save many lives

Christine Nabbanja is a 22-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 it represents at least 25 per cent of all failed equipment in hospitals. Although suctions 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.

The team of five students 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”, according to Nabbanja who was attending the second Hack-a-thon convention at Mbarara University of Science and Technology between August 22 and 24.

It was organised by the Consortium for Affordable Medical Technologies (CAMTech) Uganda and MUST 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? A Hack-a-thon enables teams made up of engineers, entrepreneurs, professors and 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, at least 1,000 innovators have participated in CAMTech 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 MUST last year. It won the second position and the first prototype has already been developed using the seed funding awarded to them. Professor Fredrick Kayanja, the former MUST  vice chancellor, says it is a practical innovation needed locally that could change hospitals and the way health workers work.

He is also glad it was hatched at a Hack-a-thon, which helps young people become better thinkers.

“It changes the mindset about their education. People who did not think they were innovators become innovators,” explains the director CAMTech, Elizabeth Bailey.  “In this game, failure is totally acceptable. It also offers a neutral space where people do not fear failure.”

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. Although the Hack-a-thons started only last year in Uganda and at MUST, Dr Data Santorino, a lecturer at MUST 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 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.

“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 partners to pick them up and commercialise them.

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

- Esther Nakkazi is a freelance journalist and respected health blogger.

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