Medics innovate low cost, portable ultra sound device

Tuesday November 5 2019

One of the doctors conducts an ultrasound using

One of the doctors conducts an ultrasound using M-scan. Courtesy Photo 

By Dorothy Nakaweesi

Uganda loses about 16 mothers daily due to risk factors of maternal mortality. Statistics by the World Health Organisation (WHO) show that at least 830 mothers in developing countries die due to pregnancy-related complications daily.

Currently, there is a huge gap in extending quality health care to pregnant mothers especially in rural areas.

Teaming up
But guess what? A team of four medical entrepreneurs - Dr Prosper Ahimbisibwe, the clinical lead and co-founder, Innocent Menyo, team lead, Phillip Kyomuhendo, radiographer and Ivan Nasasira, a technology lead; have turned their passion to change things by leveraging on technology to impact society.

This team has invented a new technology named M-scan – a low cost, portable ultrasound device which could be the answer to slashing maternal and infant death rates.

While they save dozens of mothers with pregnant complications using this device, they also earn a living.

Dr Prosper Ahimbisibwe, a 26-year old Makerere University medical graduate, is the director and co-founder of M-scan.

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During an interview with Prosper Magazine, Dr Ahimbisibwe said: “As a healthcare specialist and entrepreneur, I believe in innovation to change the world and make it a better place for humanity.”

Motivation
But what motivated these health entrepreneurs to invent this device?
While doing their community service, education and research programmes as medical students under Makerere University College of Health sciences, Dr Ahimbisibwe and his colleagues were posted upcountry.

“While there, we saw the problems of pregnant mothers. Some were actually dying due to factors that could be detected early by ultrasound. But in upcountry facilities, there was limited power infrastructure,” he recalls.

Even then, the available machines are very bulky making them inaccessible especially for people in rural areas because they are also very expensive.

So, it was out of the desire to ensure that rural expectant mothers receive quality health care that Ahimbisibwe and his colleagues developed M-scan.

“The beauty with this device is it can work with your laptop, tablet or smartphone to detect the factors of maternal mortality among pregnant mothers in social limited settings,” he explains.

With M-Scan costing about $2,000 (Shs7.4 million), it is seven times cheaper compared to the conventional ultrasound machines which go for about $15,000 (Shs55.5m) and beyond.

Start
When Ahimbisibwe and his colleagues were developing M-scan, they used a human-centred design. They moved out of the offices and carried out a needs assessment with pregnant mothers using models of ultrasound.

“We worked with sonographers on how best we could lay a probe for us on what we can use to scan the expectant mothers. Out of these, we developed different 3D printed prototypes,” he shares.

The group also worked with Uganda Industrial Research institute (UIRI) during their initial design of the M-scan. They then imported the components from China and made the first prototype.

He says their journey begun with seed funding from the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF)’s $2,000 (Shs7.4m).

This budget helped the group to make two prototypes, the first prototype was only able to do fetal pilots. Then the second was a 3D printed prototype.

Currently, they have endorsed a manufacturing agreement with a partner in China to produce their prototype.

“We have secured our prototype with intellectual property and with Uganda Registration Services Bureau. We have also applied for a patent with African Regional Intellectual Property. We also do the prints and final soldiering, secreting and 3D printing from China,” Ahimbisibwe notes.

Operation
Ideally, Ahimbisibwe and his colleagues’ leverage on the probability and affordability to actually do ultrasound among pregnant mothers in rural Uganda.

“Currently, we are offering it as a bundle where we give you an M-scan ultrasound package that includes a probe tablet, a bag with an ultrasound charger. That package goes for $2,500,” he shares.

Currently, Ahimbisibwe and his colleagues are doing a lot of piloting with their devices; generating data from the pilot sites.

He says: “We have an ultrasound unit which is a laptop solo unit in Kalangala Centre IIII which is an island district with 84 islands.”

Their ultrasound unit provides solutions for pregnant mothers who are attending from all over the 84 islands.

On average, they perform between 10 and 15 ultrasounds per day.

Fees
Working with private medical facilities, the group has built sustainable models to deliver solutions for which mothers are paying only $2 (Shs7,400) per ultrasound compared to $10 ( Shs37,000) charged in some private hospitals.

“Of this fee, the group earns $1 (Shs3,700) while the other dollar stays in facilities to help in the day to day operations of the ultrasound,” he says.

In less than two years of their innovation, the group has so far done about 500 ultrasound scans using the portable scanning device, detecting 60 complications.

“So far, we have made up to about 10 devices. These we are on the level of scaling, research and we are doing several pilot studies to generate data to validate our work,” Ahimbisibwe shares.

The group also earn from direct sales of the devices. They hire to people or entities performing medical camps such as telecom companies.

Ahimbisibwe says they have not broken even because they are still testing their business models.
He, however thinks that by 2020, they will start making a profit.
Currently, their average monthly income is about Shs1.5 million using the business models they have.

“Much as we want to make the money, we pride ourselves in social impact. One of our goals is to reach 1,000 ultrasounds among pregnant mothers in rural areas by 2020,” he adds.

Challenges
The regulatory environment is one of the challenges the group is experiencing. Theirs is a disruptive technology so they are finding it challenging to get accepted by regulatory bodies.

Secondly, there are various perceptions among their target market. The people using tend to compare it to existing solutions with a poor mindset at times.

“The other the challenge we faced is on the business side. We don’t have someone with a profound business knowledge and experience. So we have had to learn that on our own along the way,” Ahimbisibwe shared.

Prospects
For this group to scale up operations, they want their devices to be used by all people in remote corners of Uganda. They also want to have an impact across East Africa and the Sub-Saharan African region where the rate of mortality is high.

“We want to be the go-to solution for a portable ultrasound solution. So we are thinking of extending our portfolio to include point of care ultrasound with which our devices can do.

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