Design Outreach Develops Solutions for Critical Healthcare Need in African Hospitals

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For Karanda Mission Hospital in Zimbabwe, limited resources make obtaining and maintaining critical medical devices particularly difficult.

At this facility in rural Africa, the humidifier bottles used to deliver life-saving oxygen to patients must be used over and over again despite the fact that they are considered one-use tools. This repeated use increases the risk of disease transmission, reduces the oxygen flow rate, and contributes to the breakdown of the bottles.

In response to this major problem, Design Outreach (DO) engineers, along with engineering students from The Ohio State University, are currently prototyping solutions to this problem.

When DO Co-founder Greg Bixler, Ph.D., P.E., visited Karanda Mission Hospital in 2019, he inquired what technical challenges the hospital was facing and how DO might be helpful. He learned that the hospital only has two oxygen concentrators and that the humidifier bottles used with the concentrators were being subject to repeated use among various patients.

Oxygen concentrators remove nitrogen from ambient air and output nearly pure oxygen, which is connected by nasal cannula to the patient. Before the oxygen is given to the patient, it is typically humidified to prevent irritation to the patient’s nose and throat. These devices are critical for patient care.

In U.S. hospitals, where this oxygen concentrator was designed to be used, replacing the humidifier bottles frequently as a “consumable” is much cheaper and more efficient than cleaning and reusing them. But in rural Africa, where roads are rugged and resupply trucks are rare, consumable bottles are not a viable option.

Instead, Karanda Mission Hospital uses the two portable oxygen concentrators anywhere there is need in the hospital and the one-use humidifier bottles are used repeatedly among different patients, which greatly increases the risk of disease transmission. The bottles were never designed for extended wear and begin to deteriorate, impacting the flow rate of oxygen to the patient. This could mean life or death for many patients.

Shortly after Greg’s trip, he engaged with engineering capstone students from The Ohio State University to work on solutions to this critical problem. Since August 2019, the OSU team has been developing a durable anti-bacterial cap to the humidifier bottle that would include a battery-operated UV unit to sterilize the water, as well as a metal attachment to connect the bottle to the concentrator that wouldn’t wear out and would stabilize the flow of oxygen.

The OSU team has developed the initial prototype, and now the project will be coming to the DO team for further development. DO’s new biomedical engineer, Hannah Tilley, will be taking over the project in 2021.

With the humidifier bottle project and other projects in the pipeline, DO is taking steps to address some of the most pressing problems affecting healthcare in developing countries.

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