This year's #WorldHealthDay wants us to contribute to "building a fairer, healthier world," and these innovations are in line with that message.
In most of our lifetimes, there have been scarce few years as turbulent for healthcare as 2020 and 2021. At the time of writing, there have been over 132 million diagnosed cases of the coronavirus worldwide, and tragically, almost 3 million deaths. Access to healthcare has never been so important.
This year’s #WorldHealthDay, held on 7th April, pushes the message of “Building a fairer, healthier world”. Although COVID-19 has left few countries untouched, it has also highlighted the stark contrast between the resources available to some, rather than others. Most first-world countries have been far better equipped to deal with the pandemic than those who were already vulnerable.
Here we highlight seven innovations from around the world aiming to help make various aspects of healthcare more accessible for all.
1. SOLAR-POWERED STERILISATION OF MEDICAL EQUIPMENT IN DEVELOPING NATIONS
A partnership between MIT and the India Institute of Technology has produced a new solar-powered autoclave for sterilising medical equipment in developing nations, where access to electricity is limited. Autoclaves use steam to kill bacteria. For this, water needs to be heated either electrically or fuel burnt, which may be scarce in impoverished regions.
The new solar-powered autoclave incorporates a tank that releases water into a set of pipes. The pipes are attached to a copper plate with a heat-absorbing black coating on its upper surface. That surface is also layered with transparent silica-based aerogel, which allows sunlight to pass through. Polished aluminium mirrors on either side of the plate also help to concentrate the sunlight and when the plate gets hot, the liquid water in the pipes turns to steam and reaches the autoclave.
A small-scale version of the device was tested in Mumbai and performed adequately, even under cloudy skies. Based on this, it was determined that a solar collector measuring about 2 square metres would be enough to power an autoclave equivalent in size to those used in most doctors’ offices.
2. AFFORDABLE DIAGNOSTIC TECHNOLOGY CAN BE USED WITHOUT ELECTRICITY
Mexican biotechnology startup Unima has developed a fast and affordable diagnostic technology that can be used without electricity or an internet connection. The technology was developed to diagnose tuberculosis, but it can be tailored to build diagnostic tests for other diseases. There is no need for lab equipment and results are returned in 15 minutes, costing less than €1 per test.
The technology uses shark antibodies that have been genetically engineered to recognise specific disease biomarkers in blood, urine and saliva samples. These antibodies are printed on paper microfluidic devices, generating a visual reaction when coming in contact with the patient’s sample. A picture of the results is then loaded into Unima’s smartphone app and evaluated by their algorithm, taking away the need for human interpretation (and human error).
3. PROTOTYPE SURGICAL FACILITY DESIGNED FOR RURAL AREAS
New York-based Kliment Halsband Architects (KHA) have recently completed a medical project in Uganda that incorporates solar panels and rainwater collection systems. The project is located in a rural village that has limited potable water, reliable electricity, internet, or sanitary facilities. To provide these, the architects made use of local materials and off-grid technology.
The project, the Mount Sinai Kyabirwa Surgical Facility, was designed to be constructed using local materials and workers. Bricks and cladding tiles were made from red clay dug directly out of the ground near the building site and fired in a local kiln. Bricks are a common building material in the region. Using locally-made bricks, rather than imported materials, also helped to support the local economy.
In order to ensure a reliable energy supply, the architects incorporated a canopy made up of solar panels into the design. The canopy provides shade, as well as power, and air conditioning is only used in the operating rooms. The other rooms are cooled passively. Around 20 miles (32 km) of underground cables were installed to guarantee reliable internet access, which is paramount, because the local doctors use the internet to consult with Mount Sinai Surgery in New York, USA, using a real-time operating room video link.
4. MODULAR KITS TURN UNUSED HOSPITAL SPACE INTO SMART HEALTHCARE WARDS
The circular economy experts and product engineering studio MINIWIZ specialise in transforming post-consumer waste into high-performance materials. Their latest invention, the Modular Adaptable Convertible (MAC) system, upcycles such waste into medical-grade, antiviral, antibacterial treatment rooms.
The MAC wards are lightweight for easy transport and consist of interlocking parts to facilitate rapid assembly. Designed for use almost anywhere, the MAC kits can replace the makeshift hospital wards many healthcare teams have set up to help manage the volumes of COVID-19 patients. The smart features of the new wards directly address many of the challenges that result from working in mobile healthcare units.
Each modular room contains negative air pressure, which helps cool the space and prevent airborne pollutants from reaching healthcare workers. An artificial intelligence monitoring system alerts teams working elsewhere when a patient needs care. The walls are made from recycled plastic bottles and are nano-coated with recycled aluminium. An integrated ultraviolet self-cleaning system works with the aluminium to create the kit’s antiviral and antibacterial properties.
5. REMOTE RESPIRATORY MONITOR TRACKS COVID SYMPTOMS AS PATIENT SLEEPS
Turtle Shell Technologies is rolling out its contactless health monitoring system, Dozee, to quarantine centres and hospitals across India. Based in Bengaluru, the company has spent five years refining the technology that goes into the monitor. The slim sensor sheet fits under a typical mattress and connects to wifi in order to capture early health warning signs, such as changes to heart rate and breathing and sleeping patterns.
The system works by tracking micro-vibrations produced by the body and uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to build a comprehensive picture of each individual’s baseline statistics and overall health profile. The goal of Dozee is to help patients access a diagnosis or checkup before a condition deteriorates. The system meets the clinical 98.4 per cent accuracy required for use in medical settings.
As well as COVID-19, the sensing system helps track sleep apnea and monitor chronic conditions such as hypertension and other respiratory illnesses. The co-founders of the company focus their research and development on helping to make preventative healthcare part of life. They are now seeking external funding in order to produce 10,000 more units and distribute further the systems to more healthcare units. Future versions of Dozee will include temperature monitoring capabilities among other developments.
6. TEXT MESSAGING IMPROVES COMMUNITY PSYCHIATRIC CARE OUTCOMES
A randomised, controlled trial found that adding text message communications to intensive community psychotherapy programmes appeared to improve illness management and reduce the severity of paranoid thoughts. With coronavirus continuing to interrupt the provision of regular healthcare, the text messaging was a quick and easy means of improving the amount of care that was available to patients. Very little training is required, making it easy for clinicians to add the strand of care to their current programmes.
A team of researchers from the department of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth College and the department of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle, created the study, which followed a team of mental health clinicians for three months. The scientists monitored the clinical activities on a weekly basis and tracked all mobile messaging with patients. The patients’ wellness was assessed at the start of the trial and then three and six months after the use of text messaging programme.
As a means for strengthening the support available to mental health care teams with little to no extra cost, the trial appeared successful. The vast majority of text messaging contact began from the patients, and 94 per cent said that being able to access care in such a consistent manner made them feel better. The team now plans to set up a much larger study of the programme.
7. HYPERTENSION APP HELPS HEALTH TEAMS WORKING OFFLINE TO TRACK PATIENT CARE
The Simple app is easy to use. Designed by Bengaluru-based digital design company Obvious, it enables healthcare workers to operate offline and eases the administrative burden on busy healthcare teams. Many nurses in India see more than 100 patients in a day and often work in areas with low or non-existent internet connectivity.
By working offline, the app allows doctors and nurses to register new patients, quickly find patient records and update details and current blood pressure readings in seconds, as opposed to the four or five minutes currently spent searching for paper records. Data syncs to the secure cloud-based records system when the user accesses a strong internet connection. The app therefore doesn’t waste phone battery life by trying to work when connectivity is low. The dashboard makes it easy for clinicians to track individual and broader trends in health and care.
Already available in eight Indian languages and in Bangladesh and Ethiopia, the app is open license and therefore available for free around the world. The development team worked closely with local privacy organisations to ensure relevant data security for each region. Future plans include improving the usability of the app, which was recently Runner Up in the Design for Social Impact Core77 Design Awards 2020.
Written By: Holly Hamilton
7th April 2021