The new wearable has been developed by Sona Shah and Teresa Cauvel. To develop the product they shadowed nurses and doctors in twenty-five Ugandan hospitals. They began to realize that causes of infant deaths are both preventable and treatable. Using collected data they formed the start-up Neopenda, and set themselves the goal of improving health outcomes in developing countries.
Their first product focuses on newborns and is a wearable device that continuously measures vital signs and alerts nursing staff if a newborn is in distress. The device was part-funded trough a Kickstarter campaign.
Digital Journal: What is the global rate for infant mortality?
Sona Shah: There are 2.7 million newborn deaths each year — 7,300 each day (WHO). The global neonatal mortality rate is 18.6 neonatal deaths per 1,000 live births. If you look at only low income countries, the rate is 27 per 1,000, whereas high income countries have an average rate of 3 per 1,000 (World Bank).
A staggering 98 percent of newborn deaths occur in the developing world (according to Save the Children).
DJ: What are the primary causes of infant mortality?
Shah: Most newborn deaths are due to three main causes, complication of prematurity (35 percent), birth asphyxia (24 percent), and infections (24 percent). The WHO estimates that 75 percent of newborn deaths can be prevented with high-quality care.
DJ: How can technology help to reduce infant deaths?
Teresa Cauvel: At Neopenda, we are developing needs-based medical technology for emerging markets. Preventable newborn mortality is a massive problem in low-resource hospitals, where healthcare workers are overburdened, and functional medical equipment is lacking.
Our first product is wearable vital signs monitor designed specifically for advancing the care of critically ill newborns in resource-constrained facilities. Vital signs monitoring is a long-established standard of quality inpatient care, and is essential for managing sick newborns.
For example, newborns with apnea of prematurity often cease breathing, and need intervention by a nurse. Hypothermia is another very common problem that requires monitoring. Equipping healthcare workers with tools to monitor and manage neonates ultimately saves patient lives.
DJ: How does your new wearable device work?
Cauvel: Our patent-pending wearable monitor uses two sensors to continuously measures four crucial parameters: heart rate, breathing rate, blood oxygen saturation, and temperature. Data from multiple devices is wirelessly displayed on a tablet in real time. The system immediately alerts nurses when babies are in distress, improving speed of action so that newborns have the best chance to receive the care they need to survive and thrive. The wearable is rugged, reusable, and rechargeable.
DJ: How did you go about developing it?
Cauvel:We begin developing our solution in graduate school at Columbia University, where we were pursuing our Masters in Biomedical Engineering. In a biodesign course where we were challenged to think about why newborn mortality is so much higher in developing countries than it is here in the U.S.
We learned that newborns often die from preventable causes because their complications and signs of deterioration go unnoticed. After a rigorous semester of researching this problem, interviewing stakeholders in low-resource settings, and prototyping solutions, we came up with our vital signs monitoring device. We were awarded seed funding to travel to Uganda and conduct a needs assessment, where we overwhelmingly saw a vast opportunity to sustainably improve quality of care for the most at-risk patients.
Since the beginning our development process has user-centric and iterative, closely involving users and stakeholders: we have received feedback from over 150 nurses and doctors at 27 hospitals across Uganda.
DJ: How did you test out the device, for sensitivity and accuracy?
Cauvel:Our device is currently in development; we are rolling out pilot studies with partners at hospital in both Kampala, Uganda, and Boston, MA, to evaluate the accuracy of our device in comparison to gold standard equipment.
DJ: How much does the device cost and how do you plan to distribute it?
Shah: We will sell the device in packages that include 15 wearables, the tablet, software, chargers, and needed–the system is ready out-of-the-box, not reliant on wireless connectivity or specific infrastructure in the health facility. The package costs US$2500, with discounts offered to qualifying hospitals. This package provides a massive value to our users, enabling them to monitor an entire ward of newborns for less than half the price of a single traditional multiparameter patient monitor on the market.
We have two customer segments: hospitals, via in-country wholesale distributors such as the Joint Medical Stores in Uganda; and NGOs, such as Americares and Doctors Without Borders. Working with these NGO partners will help us to really scale our solution internationally.
DJ: What are your future plans?
Shah: We are passionate about improving access to high quality healthcare in underserved areas, starting with newborn care. Our first product, the vital signs monitor, can also be adapted to other patient populations, such as pediatrics, and as a tool for midwives and community health workers to reach more rural areas.
Ultimately, we are a medical device company building end-to-end solutions that enable high quality patient care and nuanced data insights for stakeholders, and will continue to leverage innovative tech to solve global health challenges.