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Taking advantage of the fact that approximately 97 percent of the people in East Africa have access to a cell phone, and computers are slowly making their way into rural Africa, that’s exactly what Mehta and his Penn State team are doing with the Mashavu (Swahili for chubby-cheeked, symbolic of the healthy state all children should enjoy) project. Mashavu is a computer-based system set up as a kiosk with a ruggedized industrial design and user-friendly interface. Medical professionals in Kenya—or anywhere in the world—can connect with patients in the developing world using cell phones and the internet.
“It’s basically a computer system,” Mehta, explains. “We use Netbooks that cost $200-$300 and medical devices designed by our students. A number are connected to a National Instruments card and we have a webcam for pictures, using an Edge network.” Cost is, of course, a key part of the program. One piece of equipment, a pulse oximeter, costs $500 off the shelf. A group of Penn State bioengineering students designed a ruggedized, solid metal version for $10. The goal is to minimize the hardware and rely as much as possible on software.
The students used National Instruments LabVIEW graphical programming language to design thermometers, blood pressure and pulse monitors, scales and a spirometer. The biomedical sensors are attached to the kiosk. These low-cost, rugged and easily replaceable items are manufactured locally. “The emphasis is on local materials,” says Shekhar Sharad, Group Manager of NI’s Academic Marketing Team. “All the materials are in Africa.”
Two examples: A $10 pulse-rate monitor consists of a sensor attached to cardboard, a Velcro strap and a USB port. (This device was eliminated in the second design iteration because the kiosk operator can easily be trained to read a patient’s pulse.) An electronic spirometer costs about $50 (and up) in the United States. The students built a proof-of-concept spirometer with a PVC pipe for a mouthpiece (cost: a few cents) and a vibration sensor (about $5) connected to a DAQ card. The mouthpieces were sterilized at the end of each session and given to the patients to prevent infection transmission.
The Mashavu devices consist only of a sensor and the minimal essential hardware around it. Significant cost reduction is achieved through virtual instrumentation. The COTS devices embed the primary sensor, signal conditioning, user display and networking support on the device itself. The sensor output is digitized by a data acquisition device (DAQ) shared by all the devices. The signal conditioning and user display is handled by software on the computer, turning the entire computer into a virtual instrument.