Two-thirds of the world lacks life-saving access to medical imaging. However, new technology — such as portable ultrasound machines — brings modern medicine where it might not otherwise take root. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), up to 70 percent of technology designed in developed countries does not work in still-developing nations. Fully-equipped hospitals can be hours, or days, away from villages, leaving conditions undiagnosed and untreated.
A Handheld Ultrasound Finds A Wide Variety of Uses in Africa
In recent years, multiple companies have developed portable ultrasound technology, often with these remote areas in mind. The Butterfly Network, a Connecticut-based company, is one such organization, which launched its prototype known as the Butterfly iQ in 2017. The device costs approximately $2,000 and is around the same size as a cell phone. The company’s founder, Jonathan Rothberg, has donated scanners to 13 low-income countries, partnering with organizations like the Canadian Charity Bridge to Health and Uganda-based Kihefo. The organization also has backing from USAID to help further its reach.
Portable ultrasound machines like the Butterfly iQ, are largely being used to test for and treat pneumonia, which causes 15 percent of the deaths of children under 5 years old, killing more than 800,000 children in 2017 alone. The technology has also been used to examine goiters, tumors and other conditions that were otherwise difficult, or impossible, to assess.
In 2014, portable ultrasound machines in Africa took on a new life. Bridge to Health and Kihefo worked to offer women the opportunity to see their unborn children. They brought suitcase-sized ultrasounds to clinics and pulled in six times the normal number of visitors, among them women who had only seen traditional healers before.
In addition to its uses in ruling out tuberculosis and helping to reduce maternal and infant mortality rates, ultrasound technology is also an important diagnostic tool for patients with HIV.
Portable Technology Carries Back Into the Developed World
The Vscan Access from GE Healthcare was originally intended for frontline health care workers in Africa and Southeast Asia. However, the portable ultrasound machine has now found a place in developed countries such as Norway, where it offers an unobtrusive ultrasound in the maternity ward.
Compared to standard ultrasounds, which can not only be uncomfortable but also intimidating to expectant mothers, the Vscan Access is small, deterring worry. Its screen is still large enough to provide a full view of the womb, including the fetal position. Dr. Birgette Kahrs of St. Olav’s Hospital in Norway also notes how easy it is to teach midwives how to operate Vscan’s touchscreen technology.
An App Expands the Reach of the Portable Ultrasound
In 2018, Philips launched Lumify, an app-based portable ultrasound system in Kenya. The new tech was announced at the launch of Beyond Zero Medical Safari, an event hosted by Beyond Zero, an organization founded by the First Lady of the Republic of Kenya that aims at preventing child and maternal deaths.
Lumify unifies portable ultrasounds and mobile devices, creating channels for secure image exchange and processing. It is primarily designed for emergency centers and urgent care centers. The app would, through a subscription service, connect health care professionals around the world. Lumify will additionally offer support, training and IT help.
Lumify is compatible with soft and hard tissue scans. It allows for audio-visual calls, which can connect doctors to remote patients, allowing for diagnosis and treatment across the body and across the globe.
Portable ultrasound technology is still relatively new, so long-term benefits are still unmeasured. Still, portable ultrasounds in Africa, like the Butterfly IQ, already show massive potential in improving the medical status of people without access to first-world medical care. With supporters including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Butterfly iQ and devices like it, are only just getting started.
– Katie Hwang