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How This Mobile Tech is Reducing Pregnancy Related Deaths

September 27, 2016Posted by Wendy Joan Biddlecombe

Pregnant women throughout the developed world expect multiple ultrasounds during their trimesters to track the progress of their baby’s growth and development.

But for many women in rural areas of countries such as Morocco, their doctor might simply listen to the baby’s heartbeat through a stethoscope and manually feel their abdomen, leaving women in the dark about complications such as pre-eclampsia.

The lack of access to proper ultrasounds can threaten not only the safety of the unborn baby, but the mother’s life as well.  

Three years ago, the Mobile Ultrasound Patrol Project was launched to provide free ultrasounds to women who might not otherwise get one. In a collaboration between Qualcomm Wireless Reach,  a strategic initiative that works to bring wireless technology to underserved communities around the globe, and Trice Imaging, the goal was to cut down on the number of maternal deaths in the developing world by reducing the size of the scanning machines and using mobile devices to transmit images back to doctors in major cities.

The program also trains local people to administer the exam to women in their own homes—many that lack running water or electricity—or in rural clinics.

“Every day, 800 pregnant women die from causes that are totally treatable if you know there is an issue,” said Angela Baker, Director of Qualcomm Wireless Reach. “In a number of parts of the developing world there are a lot of women who aren’t getting access to healthcare or ultrasounds because they’re living in these very rural places.”

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Once the women are screened, the ultrasound results are immediately sent wirelessly over an encrypted network back to doctors in Morocco’s capital, Rabat, as well as participating physicians in Casablanca and Paris, for examination.

During the clinical trial, 575 women received exams, and nearly 3,000 ultrasound images were collected. Baker said the ultrasounds had a 98 percent clarity rate, and identified 94 at-risk pregnancies that likely would not have been detected without an ultrasound. And, 158 women were flagged for a second opinion. In both cases, women received follow up care with doctors and prenatal care specialists, and were alerted to  conditions—such as ectopic pregnancy pre-eclampsia— that would have gone undetected without an ultrasound.  

Baker said the program is successful because it decreases on administrative lag time—such as printing ultrasound results on paper or burning onto a CD and mailing to a major city—and reduces costs. It also helps women connect with their unborn babies.

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“It’s very empowering for women to see their babies, and I think that’s something that we take for granted in the States,” Baker said. “Fatima, one of the women we met [on a recent trip] said that it’s amazing to see her baby and know that everything is going ok.”

She didn’t have the privilege of knowing that everything would be okay with her first baby, since she, along with other women in her village, couldn’t make the three-hour journey to the doctor in time.

One of the participating physicians, Dr. Katof Abdelkhalek, said that since the program started three years ago, his clinic has not seen a single maternal death.

The general practitioner has been screening women since 2012 and providing them with the free ultrasounds that they didn’t previously have access to because of distance, cost or lack of knowledge.

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“I met a woman from Sidi Boukhalkhal who lived 30 kilometers away from my center,”Abdelkhalek said. “She never received a follow-up exam during her pregnancies, even though her obstetric history showed complications during delivery, and a fetal death while giving birth.”

When the woman came in for an ultrasound, Abdelkhalek found that she was eight months pregnant.

“The baby was in breech position, and given her obstetric history, I convinced the patient and the family to admit her into our center where she delivered a healthy baby in our safe environment,” Abdelkhalek said.

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Earlier this month, the Moroccan government officially committed to funding the program in 10 rural clinics and working towards expansion of the program throughout the rest of the country. The government also acknowledged that the program has directly cut the number of pregnancy-related deaths.

Trice Imaging, the company that developed the cloud-based platform to transmit the results, worked in collaboration with the organization and the local health ministry to get the expansion underway.

“From a technology perspective we didn’t have to do anything. We brought a couple of cellphones and ultrasound systems, that’s all,” said Asa Nordgren, Trice Imaging’s cofounder and CEO, adding that when healthcare depends on a mobile network, it doesn’t matter what kind of infrastructure, or lack thereof, is on the ground.

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The remote diagnostics is an exciting possibility for healthcare around the world, since, by sharing test results, general practitioners can virtually and instantly connect with specialists for their expertise.

With a global marketplace and the capability to transmit test results anywhere in the world, even patients in the U.S. could one day rely on Moroccan doctors for help.

“The results can go anywhere,” Baker said. “If something happens in the middle of the night and there’s not a doctor to review, it could be sent to the U.S. where it’s the morning or early in the day, and vice versa, we could have doctors in Morocco reviewing ours.”

Photos courtesy of Qualcomm Wireless Reach

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