In an intensive care unit for COVID-19 patients where lives hang in the balance, doctors and nurses have to monitor patients’ vitals closely to ensure they are able to detect any form of distress. For countries like Uganda, where there is a strain in healthcare resources and a high patient-to-clinician ratio, doctors and nurses have to do more rounds and spend more time monitoring critically ill patients. This exposes them to a higher risk of infection.
As a solution, Villgro Kenya, an investor in health innovations, recently awarded $20,000 in grant funding to Neopenda, a medical device company focused on designing and implementing needs-base technologies for emerging markets. Their remote vital signs monitor is a device that will reduce the burden of clinicians and help them monitor more patients efficiently, while simultaneously reducing their risk of infection.
"At Villgro Kenya, we strongly feel that this innovation will change the way we administer care in the era of social distancing. Being able to remotely monitor disease progression in COVID patients could have a great outcome of reducing the risk exposure to healthcare workers who are at the frontline of this battle" - Wilfred - Co-Founder, Villgro Kenya.
The device, which started out as a neonatal vital sign monitor, was developed after founders Sona Shah and Teresa Cauvel, biomedical engineers from Columbia University, visited a hospital in Uganda and saw how nurses had a hard time monitoring admitted neonates.
“We wanted to understand the issue where clinicians and nurses are not able to know when a patient is in distress. This is because there are too many critically ill patients and not so many clinicians. So whenever there was distress, nobody knew and the newborns would end up dying from medical causes. So that led to the creation of the neo-natal device monitor called the Neo-guard,” said Sona.
Nurses and clinicians in remote areas of Uganda have used the device to monitor up to 20 patients at one time. Once all the patients are fitted with a wearable watch, their individual temperature, respiratory rate, pulse rate and oxygen saturation are displayed at a central dashboard. The low-cost device works effectively without internet or continuous power, which makes it well suited for low-income areas.
The company, which started with neonates, has always had a vision for expanding to pediatric and adult wards as well, and saw COVID-19 as an opportunity for them to move their scaling-up strategy forward.
“With our team capacity, we wanted to maintain focus, but when COVID came, most of the patients were adults and thus we adjusted the size of the band attached to the patient, recalibrated the device for different algorithms, because the natural adult vital signs are different ranges from neonate’s vital signs. So we had to do a couple of tweaks to expedite our development cycle,” Sona explained.
With advancements in its technology, the device can support the COVID-19 response in four primary ways. It can help identify suspected cases, as the common symptoms seen in positive patients, like elevated temperatures and low oxygen saturation, can be measured using the vital signs monitor.
Doctors and nurses can also triage an entire patient ward and be able to tell the severity of a single case, from which a clinician can determine an appropriate course of action. Once a patient is receiving treatment, the device can then inform the clinician on whether the patient is responding well to it or not. And, finally, data collected from the device will contribute to predictive analytics for population health, which will help inform trends within countries.
The team is currently looking to pilot their device in Uganda through their relationship with the Ministry of Health. Like many other medical devices, getting additional capital and the right investors has been a major challenge for Sona and her team. She welcomed the $20,000 COVID-19 Response Grant awarded to them by Villgro Kenya saying:
“I appreciate the efficiency of bringing the capital in. For a couple of other organizations it takes a couple of months of diligence for a small amount of the funding to come in, which would inhibit a lot of entrepreneurs. I appreciate the process Villgro Kenya took because that capital is very instrumental to small and large organizations alike.”
Medical devices require a multidisciplinary approach and partnerships across the sector are needed to ensure products like the Neopenda Vital Signs Monitor get to market.
Getting the right partnerships is a challenge for most medical device companies and, aside from funding, impact investors have a role to play in making the right connections.
Sona explained that, “One of the things we are doing with Villgro Kenya is developing a go-to-market strategy based on the COVID-19 response. So a better understanding of how we are responding and how to integrate within their national task force. Part of that is understanding the landscape, talking to other entrepreneurs that Villgro Kenya has connected us to that will enable us to work together to be part of the Ministry’s initiative.”
Speaking on how entrepreneurs can adapt to change brought about by the pandemic, Sona urged innovators and entrepreneurs to understand their role in the pandemic and leverage partnerships while engaging with users to ensure products released are relevant.
“With Neopenda, we accelerated our timelines and adapted our technology. For other companies, it may not be so straightforward to make the pivot to get into the fight but, for those who can adapt, relationships are crucial, especially in the markets venturing into partnerships.”
Frontline health workers continue to face the imminent risk of infection as they interact closely with patients. In Kenya alone, 84 healthcare staff were infected and this raises the concerns about their safety among key stakeholders. The vital signs monitor from Neopenda has the potential to save patient lives and reduce the chance of infections among frontline health workers long after this pandemic is over.