Deploying Low-Cost Engineering Solutions to Local Healthcare Needs in India

Published 11/02/2022 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by David Wang | 11/02/2022

In the summer of 2014, I spent ten weeks in India working to develop and deploy low-cost engineering solutions in response to local healthcare needs as part of the Medical Technologies in India program.

Under the auspices of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Harvard South Asian Institute, the Medical Technologies in India Program sends a team of four Harvard students to Bangalore, India to engage in project-oriented design and entrepreneurial research on the topic of developing medical technologies for emerging economies. Throughout the duration of the program, the Harvard students work closely with four Masters students from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore in an integrated team model that draws strength from the unique backgrounds of the Harvard and IISc students. During that summer, I gained an understanding of the socioeconomic drivers behind developing medical technologies for emerging economies and engaged globally in my most substantive way to date. When reflecting upon my four years in college, I can say without reservation that Medical Technologies in India represents one of the most challenging and meaningful experiences I had the privilege of being a part of.

After spending thirty-four hours in airports and planes between Los Angeles and Bangalore, the Harvard team members settled in on campus at the Indian Institute of Science and began the the first phase of the project. Our foremost agenda item was to perform clinical needfinding in the local context, identifying and learning more about the specific unmet medical needs within Bangalore and the country at large. From there, we would winnow down the list of potential problems to tackle, brainstorm solutions to prototype, and finalize two separate projects that would be tackled by two teams, each comprised of two Harvard students and two IISc students. Our mandate was incredibly open-ended: the team was given no outside influence or guidance as to what unmet medical need we should or even could address; we were constrained only by our very limited budget and the engineering resources available on the IISc campus. The success or failure of the projects therefore very much depended on selecting the right projects to tackle, ones that presented a serious problem to Indian society and had no presently viable solution, yet invited the development of an engineered solution that could be prototyped and tested in the 10-week timeframe of the program. To begin, each member of the Harvard team spent one week poring through the medical and scientific literature and examining the products and design ideations of other actors in the medical innovation space, including start-ups and non-governmental organizations (NGO’s). Our initial project brainstorming list was expansive, including ideas such as creating an improved c-collar for spinal injuries and infant warming blankets to reduce neonatal mortality. We therefore sought the advice of medical experts and scientific authorities in Bangalore, with the help of Professor B. Gurumoorthy, the department chair of the Center for Product Design and Manufacturing at IISc, to help us identify the most promising project ideas. Thanks to Professor Gurumoorthy’s efforts and connections, we were able to personally meet with several renown medical professionals and practitioners in Bangalore to discuss our projects and to bounce ideas back and forth. These meetings yielded unique sources of inspiration; Dr. Deshpande V. Rajakumar, the Director of Neurosurgery at Fortis Hospital, allowed us the opportunity to scrub into a spinal surgery and observe the cutting-edge minimally-invasive surgical techniques he employed. We also had the chance to talk with Dr. Shabeer Ahmed, a consultant gastrointestinal, laparoscopic and bariatric surgeon, about challenges facing patients who require minimally-invasive surgery and their physicians, especially in the context of developing economies. These informal meetings and conversations played a pivotal role in guiding us during the ideation phase of the project. Soliciting feedback from experts as frequently as possible represented one of the most valuable sources of input that we could have gained because it guided our prototyping strategy: ultimately, we wanted to engineer something that would be as useful and practical to end users as possible, and having their guidance helped us remain true to that objective.

Ultimately, my team decided to address the issue of blood vessel detection during minimally invasive surgery, otherwise known as laparoscopic surgery. An increasingly common surgical technique, minimally invasive surgery is performed more than three million times in the U.S. and Europe alone. Laparoscopic surgery relies upon tiny incisions in conjunction with tubular tools called trocars to allow the surgeon to manipulate tissues through the tiny incisions. In the developing world where physicians may not have access to advanced imaging technologies, patients face significant risks during minimally invasive surgery due to difficulties visualizing the blood vessels in close proximity to the tissue manipulation. We chose to craft and prototype a surgical probe that was compatible with the trocars used in minimally invasive surgery and would provide a cost-effective way to detect blood vessels by acting as a tactile sensor and alerting the operator when a pulse was detected. Using an Arduino computing chip and pressure sensors from discarded cell phone parts, we were able to prototype a surgical probe and provide a proof-of-concept presentation that our probe was able to detect pulses at the exterior surface of the carotid and radial arteries. One significant challenge that I faced as a biologist by background was a lack of experience in the electrical engineering systems that we were using to prototype our probe sensor. I was completely unfamiliar with tools such as Arduino and MatLab that served as the foundation for the heartbeat sensor we were creating and accordingly, I sought extra resources from online learning sites that could help get me up to speed.  

The Medical Technologies in India program allowed me to think more critically about problem-solving in the global context. I became more adept at analyzing the various determinants that would decide whether a solution would prove effective in the specific context, rather than assuming a one-size-fits-all approach. One of the most meaningful facets of the experience was the opportunity to work in an integrated team structure that partnered two Harvard students with two IISc students per project team. In an increasingly globalized world, the ability to work effectively and draw upon the strengths of team members from diverse backgrounds to work toward a common objective will prove to be one of the most valuable skills now and in the future.