Center for Innovation in Global Health Technologies designs and delivers low-cost medical technologies to partners abroad

On the table in a small office at the Technological Institute on Northwestern’s campus, Matthew Glucksberg, director of the Center for Innovation in Global Health Technologies (CIGHT), turns over a white padded cloth– something that looks more like a small heating pad than what it is: a blanket for newborn infants. When he flips a switch, an electric blue LED light glows beneath the fabric.

It’s a simple idea, but the impact is huge. The blanket is used to treat premature newborns, who very often develop jaundice because their livers don’t break down bilirubin quickly enough (bilirubin is a waste product occurring from the breakdown of red blood cells). The way to treat the jaundice is through phototherapy, exposure to a particular wavelength of blue light, which the LED-lit blanket delivers. For a few hours per day, mothers wrap the blanket around the newborn and rest them against their chest, creating, in essence, an incubator for the infant.

“This is about as simple as you can get,” Glucksberg says of the device. “But when you actually engineer something, nothing is simple.”

That is the role of CIGHT: finding and designing practical solutions to pervasive global health care issues. Through the Center, engineering students have the opportunity to partner with on-the-ground clinicians to bring new or improved technologies to health care facilities in Africa.

“You start from the need,” Glucksberg says. “Rather than go in with a technology, which is what too many people do, we start at the need end.”

Partnering clinicians– usually nurses, but also doctors, surgeons, and all other practitioners– approach CIGHT with a particular problem to solve. Undergraduate students then design or improve a device to address the need at a low cost. If the projects are workable, they go to the labs at CIGHT (located in the Hogan Building on the Evanston campus) to be further developed. At that point, CIGHT partners with the Kellog School and the Global Health Initiative to bring prototypes to developing countries to see if it can be used and to gain useful feedback.

At nursing colleges in South Africa, another project is being tested: a pediatric diagnostic tablet for clinics that are “overwhelmed with people,” according to Glucksberg. In these clinics, which often see hundreds of children per day, nurses must quickly determine whether patients must go to the hospital, be sent home or administered specific medicines based on guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO). Using WHO protocol, the tablet program guides nurses and patients through a series of modules asking diagnostic questions, such as “Is the child unable to drink or breastfeed?” and “Does the child have a fever?” The program allows nurses to efficiently evaluate and determine next steps for their patients.

“We hope that the nurses will like it and will be able to introduce it into the clinics,” Glucksberg says.

CIGHT doesn’t always develop ground-breaking new technologies, but rather focuses on workable cost-effective solutions that are easily implemented in under-resourced settings. Partners approach CIGHT to provide technologies that may cost mere hundreds of dollars to produce but are sold at prohibitive costs in the global medical marketplace. Figuring out the way to deliver essential technologies and medical services at an affordable cost is the challenge of the department. But everyone involved is ready for action.

“We have very enthusiastic students working on this and a very enthusiastic group of people working over at the Hogan Labs,” Glucksberg says.

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