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Devices under Western’s Frugal Biomedical Innovations program include an open-source 3-D printable walker led by Joshua PearceSupplied

Western University is bringing affordable medical devices to remote and underserved communities

From walkers to hearing aids to glucose monitors, virtually all of us will need some form of assistive medical technology in our lifetimes. Yet these life-changing products are out of reach for almost a billion people worldwide.

“Whether because of cost, limited availability or both, there’s an enormous, unmet need for these types of assistive products in remote and low-resource settings,” says Margaret Mutumba, director of Western University’s Frugal Biomedical Innovations program. “Our goal is to develop high-quality devices for a fraction of the cost.”

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Ana Luisa Trejos leads efforts to create a wearable Parkinson’s tremor-suppression prototype.Supplied

Developing low-cost, locally sourced solutions

A multidisciplinary initiative between Western Engineering and the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, researchers and students with the Frugal Biomedical Innovations program are developing low-cost medical aids using locally available materials and expertise.

The team includes biomedical engineering and clinician partners in sub-Saharan Africa, including Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya, Western’s Africa Institute and partners in remote areas in Northern Canada, places that often face underdeveloped infrastructure and limited resources. Prototypes of the devices are field-tested and refined with the help of local partners and health-care providers who understand the unique needs of their communities.

Changing lives with wearable tech

Engineering professor Ana Luisa Trejos’s WearME team is creating low-cost wearable technology with the potential to transform the lives of people living with Parkinson’s disease.

The team’s latest wearable device is a glove, developed using frugal design techniques, that monitors Parkinson’s symptoms.

“Three out of every four people with Parkinson’s have an associated tremor, making it difficult to perform common tasks such as eating or buttoning a shirt,” says Dr. Trejos. “This glove can track and record these tremors. Once downloaded, health-care providers can use this data to monitor disease progression and develop more targeted patient care plans.”

The WearME team is also working on a tremor-suppression glove that can improve motor control in people with Parkinson’s while reducing or restricting involuntary muscle contractions associated with the neurological disorder.

“An accessible, low-cost wearable device capable of suppressing tremors will help people regain confidence and independence,” says Dr. Trejos. “Our ultimate goal is to give people with Parkinson’s disease more control over their lives and help them stay in their own homes far longer.”

"For me, it’s very personal that we need to make health care equitable and accessible for all. That is the mission of our program.

Margaret Mutumba
Director, Western University’s Frugal Biomedical Innovations Program

Increasing worldwide access to mobility aids

Researchers and students led by Western engineers Jacob Reeves and Joshua Pearce have designed a “build-your-own” customizable 3-D-printed walker using low-cost, readily available materials.

With 2.7 million Canadians aged 15 and older – and millions worldwide – living with a mobility impairment, this kind of open-access, customizable and affordable alternative can mean the difference between surviving and thriving.

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A team led by Emily Lalone is working on 3-D printed, low-cost X-ray imaging tools.Supplied

For engineering student Anita So, helping people is a primary motivation in developing the walker. “The fact I might be able to make even the slightest difference in someone’s life, clear across the world, is just amazing,” she says.

Next on the team’s agenda: Finding efficient and sustainable ways to power 3-D printers in remote and low-resourced environments and convert plastic waste into filament to make the walkers.

Making health care equitable and accessible

While these devices are filling a desperate need, to be truly impactful, frugal innovations must also be sustainable and maintainable by the individuals and communities they are serving.

To this end, collaborative partnerships between researchers, clinicians and end-users in low-resource communities will play a vital role in ensuring this inclusive approach to health care and improving overall health outcomes is successful.

“I’m originally from Uganda, which would be considered a low-resource setting,” says Dr. Mutumba. “I worked in the health sector there for over a decade, so I deeply understand the challenges faced on the ground. For me, it’s very personal that we need to make health care equitable and accessible for all. That is the mission of our program.”

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