University of Western Ontario: Designing frugal medical devices among projects receiving Western strategic grants

With half the world having no access to essential health care, and some remote and low-resource areas littered with donated medical devices that no longer work, an interdisciplinary group at Western is devising smart solutions.

The Western frugal biomedical innovation team is developing ways to redress inequities in Canadian and global health by designing, developing, testing and deploying biomedical devices that meet the needs of the communities where they’re most needed.

The team is one of 24 change-making projects awarded grants totalling $13.3 million. It’s part of a unique $20-million strategic priorities fund Western announced in last year’s budget to support key areas of the university’s strategic plan —Towards Western @ 150.

Faculty and staff from academic and administrative units across campus were invited to submit project proposals that: aligned with Western’s strategic plan; have measurable benefits and feasibility; are financially sound; and make a difference to the community and the world.

The first two rounds of funding drew 66 proposals. Submissions for the third round of funding are now being assessed.

“We’ve been really impressed by the innovative and interdisciplinary nature of the proposals we’re receiving,” said Western President Alan Shepard. “Bringing people from different faculties, departments, and teams together to come up with creative and practical solutions to problems here at home and abroad is exactly what the strategic priorities grants are designed to do.

“The work being done by the frugal biomedical innovation team is a great example of this collaborative approach. Not only are they making use of the diverse skillsets available here at Western, but they’re also working directly with partners on the ground to understand and respond to the unique needs of the communities who’ll be using their devices.”

Strategic partnerships

For the biomedical innovation team, with an administrative home in the School of Biomedical Engineering, the intent is to draw upon the collective brainpower of student trainees and more than 20 interdisciplinary faculty members for innovative answers to resource dilemmas.

“Frugal” does not mean sub-standard, emphasized team member David Holdsworth, professor of surgery and medical biophysics in the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.

Frugal means the solutions respect the strengths and limitations of the people and the places they’re serving – including being relatively inexpensive to build, use and fix.

“It is purpose-built, designed for economy and implementation, but not simplicity or triviality or lack of sophistication,” said Holdsworth, who is also a scientist at Robarts Research Institute and a member of Western’s Bone & Joint Institute.

Devices intended for urban areas, with specialized clinical and technical personnel to operate and maintain them, may not be appropriate in a remote location with limited staffing or an unreliable electrical system or poor water supply, said James Lacefield, professor of biomedical engineering.

He noted there are communities with “equipment graveyards” of medical devices that broke down and, because those communities had neither the equipment nor the specialized knowledge to fix them, had to be jettisoned.

“One of the things we’re trying to think about is how to make devices that can be found, fabricated and repaired in the communities they’re meant to serve,” Lacefield said.

They could include ultrasound machines, for example, or more-portable x-ray machines or smart stethoscopes that could relay information between a remote clinic and a hospital; ways a nurse could conduct biochemical tissue analyses without needing to send a specimen to a laboratory; and developing methods of keeping vaccines at appropriate temperatures where there is no access to electricity.

“We’re also focusing on understanding what the limitations are, and designing around those, and also figuring out how to support our partners in these areas,” said Maria Drangova, professor of medical biophysics at Schulich Medicine and Robarts scientist.

One of the challenges they plan to address is working with partners to ensure any device complies with regulatory frameworks requiring any medical device is both safe and helpful.

The team includes biomedical engineering and clinician partners in Uganda and Kenya, Western’s Africa Institute, as well as partners in remote areas and Indigenous lands in Canada: places that often face underdeveloped infrastructure, unequal social resources, and geographical and environmental challenges. These partnerships allow the team to understand the areas’ resources and needs, skills and gaps.

“The requirements for designing a frugal device are as stringent as any other device. And so, from the students’ point of view, one of the things I’m hoping they understand is that the principles of good device design are the same principles that go into all good engineering design. Whatever sector they end up working in, the students who are involved in these projects will learn problem-identification and problem-solving skills that can apply anywhere.”

The challenge is a big one, and it’s not likely to be solved in the two years of the grant funding span, but the team hopes the next several months will grow a greater momentum and a larger team that can help make the project a longer-term venture.

“What we hope is to have impact in those two years to demonstrate we are on the right path to establishing this type of program, strengthen relationships we have with individuals in Africa and elsewhere, really understand the problems that exist and how we can challenge students to understand these problems and develop devices,” said Drangova.

Grant recipients

Additional projects awarded under the strategic priorities fund range from alumni partnerships for work-integrated learning to severe-storms research to a welcome program for international students (lead applicants’ department(s), unit or faculty in parentheses):

Anatomy WALS (Western active learning spaces) Beyond Walls, Laura Misener (Health Sciences)
Bkejwanong Greenhouse Project, Desmond Moser and Clint Jacobs (Earth Sciences, Indigenous Initiatives)
Canadian Severe Storms Lab, Katsu Goda and Greg Kopp (Earth Sciences, Engineering)
Carbon Solutions at Western University, Andrew Hrymak (Engineering)
Career Launch and Professional Development Programs for New Graduates, Katie Osborne and Terry Rice
Community Leadership, Engagement and Entrepreneurship Lab (CLEE), Michael Kim
Community Legal Services Expansion, Kimberly Gagan (Law)
Community-Based Social Science Research Consultancy, Marc Joanisse (Social Science)
Connecting for Climate Change Action, Katrina Moser (Social Science)
Cultivating Alumni Partnerships for Work-Integrated Learning, Sarah Dawson (Alumni Relations and Development)
Experimental Climate Change Research Centre (Biotron), David Coltman (Science)
Frugal Biomedical Innovations, James Lacefield (Engineering)
Indigenous Learning Space Programming, Paula Cornelius Hedgepeth (Indigenous Initiatives)
Indigenous STEM Scholars Program, Joanne Moniz (Engineering)
International Student Welcome Program, Megan Sager (Western International)
Medical Science Community Outreach Program, Jennifer Devlin, Jefferson Frisbee, Sarah McLean and Jedd Sardido (Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry)
Multidisciplinary Graduate Program in Climate Risk, Greg Kopp and Kamran Siddiqui (Engineering)
Teaching and Sharing Strategies for Sustainability in the Museums Sector, Kirsty Robinson and Sarah E.K. Smith (Visual Arts)
Thinking Globally, Acting Locally: Students Driving Sustainable Development, Linda Miller and Jacquelyn Burkell (Research Development & Services)
Toronto District School Board Partnership, Erin Huner (Ivey Business)
Wartime Canada – A Digital Resource, Jonathan Vance (Social Science)
We Empower, Souzan Armstrong (WORLDiscoveries)
Western Immersive Reality Education & Development Lab, Paul Mensink (Science) Western International Piano Camp, Michael Kim (Don Wright Faculty of Music)

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