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'Frugal' medical devices set to help developing countries

British engineers are being called on to create “frugal” medical devices that could benefit the developing world and produce cost-savings at home.

A hand-powered centrifuge, an inflatable donkey saddle for women in labour and a waterless toilet that encases waste in biodegradable film were among the devices showcased at a conference on affordable medical technology this week, which saw the announcement of a funding call to support companies working in this field.

The Technology Strategy Board (TSB) used the event at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in London to reveal it was planning a competition to fund innovations that could make healthcare more affordable in poorer countries but that also have a clear commercial appeal.

‘The question is how to provide affordable healthcare to seven billion people when over one billion are living on less than $1 a day,’ said the TSB’s medtech specialist, Dr Neil Morgan. ‘It’s not just about cost cutting. It’s about making things cheaper and better.’

The conference heard that such technologies also need to be appropriate for parts of developing world where electricity supplies, medical and technical expertise can be limited or non-existent, and where dusty or humid conditions can make traditional devices unsuitable.

The “hemafuse” device, for example, brought to the conference by University of Michigan spin-out firm DIIME (Design Innovations for Mothers Everywhere), is designed to allow healthcare workers to remove blood from patients experiencing internal haemorrhaging, strain it for clots and return it to the body, without specialist training.


The “hemafuse” device is designed to allow healthworkers to quickly remove, strain and return blood to a patient without the need for specialist expertise.

Many developing countries have a shortage of donor blood and so practice auto-transfusion, where a patient’s blood is returned to their body. But in the absence of expensive centrifuge-based pump technology ­­– and electricity to power it – blood is often manually removed using a “soup ladle” method and strained with gauze, a process that can take up to 30 minutes per pint of blood.

DIIME has produced a simple syringe-like device designed to suck and strain blood from the body at a speed that prevents it from damaging blood cells and that can be operated without expertise.

‘Our device uses a medical grade filter and it’s manual and it takes less than five minutes, so it allows them to get the blood back into the patient faster and gives them a safer way of doing so,’ DIIME CEO Gillian Henker told The Engineer. ‘It will allow them to go out to the rural areas where they don’t have as many people to do this very tedious procedure.’

Other devices at the conference were designed to address problems specific to certain developing countries. British charity HealthProm and designer Peter Muckle have created an inflatable donkey saddle to improve the comfort of women in labour travelling from rural areas of Afghanistan to hospital.

By creating a purpose-built, inflatable saddle, HealthProm hopes to encourage more women to make the long journey rather than remaining at home and giving birth in unhygienic conditions without access to medical expertise.

‘Most saddles have a solid wooden piece and only fit one size animal but the donkeys in Afghanistan really vary in size, so you need something that’s going to adjust very easily but keeping a certain amount of rigidity,’ said Muckle, who built the first prototype from inflatable pool toys and cushions encased in fabric.

The saddle is also designed so it can be made by women in local communities in five days for the material cost of five days’ wages.

The conference also addressed how using technology to drive down the cost of healthcare could benefit developed countries, and how this could help increase the commercial appeal of manufacturing devices for customers with very small health budgets, even if these markets were set to grow dramatically in coming years.

Babulal Sethia, lead for global health at the Royal Society of Medicine, said: ‘We need to learn from these technologies in our own countries because healthcare in the UK and elsewhere is becoming unaffordable.’

David Williams, inventor of the ShakerScope kinetically powered light source for medical instruments, said it was only by adapting his technology for developed countries that he was able to create a commercial proposition to support distribution of the product in the developing world.

Readers' comments (6)

  • We do already have a hand-powered centrifuge in our kitchen! We use it to wash salad. Joking apart, I applaud these type of activities/efforts because they are surely following in the paths of 'Small is beautiful' Schumacher the gru of going for the simplest solutions to problems. [aka Nevil Shute, Engineer turned author: 'Engineers do for 10p what any fool can do for £1'] Love the idea of an inflatable saddle for donkeys:
    My experience of inflatable 'textile' products is that it will be the seams and the entry point for air that are the most stressed, not the sitting area. HM's forces do have inflatable liquid tanks and other containers, using the exhaust gases from the engine to inflate? Some cross-pollination of ideas possible here?

    Mike B

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  • This should be targeted at all Publicly funded systems in the UK also; e.g.too much complication is allowed in UK Hospitals. What's wrong with cotton wool balls and a bottle of antiseptic? The 'Schumacher Principle' should be used as a filter for the use of technology anywhere in Public expenditure. Private spending has its own self limiting filters but no such system is in place to prevent Public bodies making very free with our money.

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  • Thanks for those comments and ideas Mike. At present we plan to make the inflatables using an oversized polythene bladder (ordinary sheet, welded with a hot nail) with a cotton canvas envelope. The strain is taken by the cover. We have a couple of valve designs to test over the winter, one using a plastic bottle top/neck, and one which uses a sleeve and straw to fill.

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  • It was called 'value engineering' in former times. As a part of the US space programme, NASA spent millions of dollars trying to create a ball-point pen that would work in space, zero gravity...and the Soviets used pencils!

    It is to be hoped that doing anything as inexpensively as possible [I did NOT say cheaply!] come so naturally to Engineers that it is taken as a given....but great swathes of our society are paid personally the more assets they use, the longer they take to do something,the MORE complicated they make a task...and amazingly as they rise up the slippery pole of management (whatever that is) the more people they have 'under' their control. What possible incentive is there for any group so blessed? to self-improve.
    As I believe a former PM (Wilson) said -"turkeys have rarely voted for Christmas to be brought forward."
    Though of all politicians comments, that from President Johnson is surely the most pertinent.
    "you can only get back from any Government, what was put there by industry and commerce in taxes, less the cost of administrating the pay-back!"

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  • Ref. Donkey saddle.... Turn the principle backwards and use a bag of polystyrene beads (or similar) which is first moulded to the shape of animal and rider, then suck the air out. Instant and rigid, perfectly conforming, saddle without any strain on the 'bag'.

    Regrettably not my idea. This principle is used by the ambulance service for arm/leg supports that cushion, support and and hold steady, but don't compress the affected limb(s) as an inflatable device would do.

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  • Sorry Mike, I'm all for "value engineering" but the Soviet space pencil myth has long since been debunked. (Astronauts can't afford to have shards of wood and graphite floating around their space capsule.)

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