Do we need more women at the design table?

18 June 2020

How female Biomedical Engineering students change the health system in Ethiopia.

Caroline Criado Perez writes in her award winning book ‘invisible women’ about how women are systematically ignored in data, innovations and technology. An example is Apple’s Health App that was launched in 2014. It is possible to monitor almost all physical health with this app: your sleep, your diet, heart rate, weight, blood pressure, etc. Still, Apple forgot one important element of the female body. In this first version of the app, women were not able to monitor their menstrual cycle, even though this could be easily incorporated in the app.[1] Such an essential part was of course not deliberately forgotten by Apple, the male inventors at the design table simply had not thought of it.

This is an example that shows how important it is to have both men and women at the design table. Especially when we are talking about health care and innovative and related technological developments, we cannot unconsciously ignore half of the world population.

Girls and women are trained as biomedical engineers by the Jimma Technical University in Ethiopia

In Ethiopia, Jimma Technical University started in 2010 the first Biomedical Engineering training in the country. The Ministry of Health urged the university to start this training, since up to that time there were no professionals in Ethiopia who could develop the necessary medical equipment for hospitals and health centres. During the starting years of this education, the technical teachers were reskilled as biomedical engineering specialists and the first curricula and education material was developed. Thereafter, the enrolment of female students was one of the focal points. Of all students that are currently enrolled in the Biomedical Engineering course in the university, 52% is female. This is a high percentage, especially when we compare this number to other technical studies in Ethiopia where girls and women are usually underrepresented. The Jimma Technical University is fully aware of the importance of both male and female biomedical engineers, especially for a sector that should focus on humans in all their diversity.

Students of Jimma Technical University develop a prototype to make childbirth safer

It is certainly not the case that only female biomedical engineers are committed to improving health care that does justice to the female body. But it is the case that we need female biomedical engineers to prevent us from making the same mistake as Apple did in 2014. To ensure we meet the needs of all future patients, we need to have people sitting at the design table that are as representative as possible to society.

A very relevant topic we believe, especially when we look at the rates of maternal mortality. Even though the World Health Organisation (WHO, 2019) indicates that maternal mortality rates are dropping significantly in Ethiopia due to improved health care, steps still need to be taken. Where at the start of this century still 30.000 mothers died during childbirth, in 2017 this number dropped to 14.000.[2] This drop of more than 50% is good news, but Ethiopia’s maternal mortality rate still belongs to one of the highest in the world.[3] According to the Ethiopian Ministry of Health, this number can be further decreased by interventions such as the improvement of the quality of health care for mothers and emergency obstetric help, especially in the more rural areas of the country.[4]

Five female students of the Jimma Technical University conducted research on the need for care for women during childbirth. They designed a prototype of a device that is able to improve this care for mothers. A small, light and easily manageable device that midwives are able to use to measure the stimulation of the uterus. This measurement is currently happening manually, whereby midwives use their hands and a stopwatch during a delivery that could last up to eight hours. In reality it is hardly feasible and definitely not desirable to do this manually. The AIMD device that the female students designed is able to change this. The group of students will further test and develop their prototype, they will write a business case and will then be ready to bring the device to the market.

Similar devices do exist, but they are imported to Ethiopia. These devices are very expensive, unnecessarily complex and heavy. This makes them not suitable for use in the small health centres in the more rural areas of Ethiopia. As women, we want to receive good care when we become mothers ourselves, so we thought it was important to develop this device. It is for all mothers of Ethiopia

Mestawet Bogale, students of Jimma Technical University and co-founder of AIMD device

The Nuffic NICHE project is implemented by CINOP and partners

The AIMD prototype is developed by Biomedical Engineering students within the ‘incubation centre’ of the Jimma Technological University. The development of the incubation centre is executed in a cooperation within the NICHE project, with the goal of providing students with the opportunity to develop prototypes and commence a start-up with the help of teachers. Students receive assistance to truly market their prototype in Ethiopia.

The NICHE project is financed by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, coordinated by Nuffic and executed by CINOP in collaboration with Jimma Technological University, the University of Cape Town, the University of Oulo, Tampere University of Technology and Philips Health. Next to the development of the incubation centre, the NICHE project consisted amongst others of strengthening two master programmes, training of teachers, and gaining necessary biomedical equipment for teaching.

[1] https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2019/11/29/vrouwen-bestaan-of-ze-nu-moeilijk-zijn-of-niet-a3982159

[2] https://www.who.int/gho/maternal_health/countries/eth.pdf

[3] https://ourworldindata.org/maternal-mortality

[4] http://www.moh.gov.et/ejcc/en/mch

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