How students design inventions in medical equipment that improve Ethiopian health care

16 April 2020

Blog from our consultants Doreen Verbakel, Carmen Kurvers and Hans Maltha visiting the Jimma Technical University in Ethiopia as part of the Biomedical Engineering program.

We are on our way to our first meeting with Esayas Alemayehu and Wasehun Alemayehu, respectively director and lecturer at the Jimma Technical University. Jimma is a six hour drive away to the west from Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia. Far enough to leave behind the busy life of the capital. The university is located on the edge of the city, where a beautiful campus stretches out over multiple similar buildings. It is a tranquil campus, with lots of greenery.

Esayas and Wasehun welcome us with a short summary of the lifecycle of this university. The most recent educational programme of the Jimma Technical University is the Biomedical Engineering programme. It has been set up in 2010 on demand of the Ministry of Health. Ethiopia did not have any studies for Biomedical Engineering before this time, which meant there were also no biomedical engineers employed in the hospitals and health centres in the country. As a consequence, all medical equipment needed by the hospitals had to be imported from abroad. An expensive matter, which led to a shortage of medical equipment. Next to this, imported equipment turned out to be inadequately adapted to the local context of Ethiopia. For good quality health care, medical equipment is required to adhere to local needs.

Medical equipment that fits the context of Ethiopia

Medical equipment that may perfectly function in hospitals in the Netherlands or the United States, might be too expensive, heavy, complex or partly irrelevant for the relatively small health centres in rural areas in Ethiopia. The quality of health care is dependent on the right adjustments of the delivered care to the needs of the people that are receiving this care. Medical equipment needs to be manageable for people that use it. Contextualising this equipment therefore starts already with the language displayed on the dashboard. Just like Dutch doctors do not have to work with French devices, so should Ethiopian doctors not have to work with only English devices. Educating the biomedical engineers of the future –who will develop the necessary medical equipment that truly is relevant in the local context- is therefore literally of vital importance.

Students develop prototypes with societal value

How do you ensure as a university that your students will be capable of truly developing solutions for local health care? The mandate of the Jimma Technical University focusses on understanding the challenges at play within society, and on developing solutions for these existing challenges. Esayas acknowledges that the role of the university cannot be isolated from the context in which the university finds itself. “Our professors, teachers and students work together with multiple actors in society such as ministries, hospitals and doctors so their university research will always match the necessities of the society”. A part of this mandate of the Jimma Technical University to combine research and practice is the development of the incubation centre ‘BicJimma’ within the university walls.

In this centre, groups of students work in collaboration with their teachers on real solutions: they investigate what the health care in Ethiopia needs and develop prototypes for equipment that is needed to improve the health care in local hospitals and health centres. Next to this, they are supported in BicJimma to develop their business plan in order to truly bring their prototype to the market. Because only then can innovative inventions create societal value.

Kokeb Dese designs the ‘Haqila Leukotest’ to automatically detect leukaemia

An old classmate of Kokeb Dese –who also studied at the Jimma Technical University-  was diagnosed with leukaemia. This diagnose came too late and he didn’t survive the illness. “Yearly, about 350.000 people are diagnosed with leukaemia in Ethiopia, but this diagnose comes often too late. I thought there is a need for a new system to diagnose the illness. In the current system, a microscope is used which makes the test relatively inaccuracy as you have to actively look for signs of leukaemia. Because doctors do not automatically think about leukaemia when a patient is sick, they do not directly look for the signs. I therefore wanted to invent a new system that could automatically detect and recognize the disease”. Kokeb developed an image processing method that can automatically detect the presence or absence of leukaemia with a drop of blood. The method is cheap and the diagnose can be given in less than two minutes with a system that works completely automatic. Kokeb currently works on the improvement of his prototype, which is already 98,1% accurate. In the next three years he wishes to be able to provide about 300 hospitals in Ethiopia with his Haqila Leukotest.

Shimelis Nigusu develops an analysis device to measure body fat for an ageing population

It is estimated that in 2050 about 10,3% of the Ethiopian population consists of people over 60 years old. This percentage is currently still 5%.[1] Shemilis explains that ageing is of course not a problem in itself, but that older people are more vulnerable to chronic diseases such as high blood pressure. “Body fat is one of the biggest causes of chronic diseases among the elderly in Ethiopia and there are already many systems on the market that can measure this body fat. For example, the Chemistry Analyzer is currently being used in the larger hospitals, but this device is incredibly inconvenient to use”. Shimelis explains that this device is so large and heavy that it is difficult to move, and it is also inaccessible to a large part of the population because instructions are only given in Chinese and English. The majority of the Ethiopian population speaks only Amharic or another native language. “That’s why I designed a small and light device that can measure body fat for elderly. It is very easy to use and it can give the user instructions in three different local languages. If it appears that someone has a percentage of body fat that is too high, the device will tell the user to contact a doctor. This way, diseases caused by too much body fat can be early detected and prevented”.

 [1] https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/jaih/29/1/29_11/_pdf

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