Students Create Award-Winning Patient Monitor To Improve Global Health

hands holding prototype of monitor

An early prototype of the FreePulse patient monitor was designed using resources at the university's Longhorn Maker Studio.

A team of students from The University of Texas at Austin has developed an award-winning low-cost patient monitor focused on improving global health.

Patient monitors are medical devices that track a patient's vital signs in order to identify respiratory or cardiac distress. It's easy to take these patient monitors for granted in the U.S. because each hospital bed comes equipped with one. In developing countries the devices are less accessible due to their high cost. Hospitals in low-income areas depend on donations for new patient monitors, which can be unreliable and infrequent. Additionally a large number of donated machines break due to an inability to withstand inconsistent power conditions associated with many developing areas.

Using resources and machinery at The University of Texas at Austin's Longhorn Maker Studio, members of the student organization Texas Engineering World Health developed FreePulse, a low-cost device that provides basic monitoring for heart rate, electrocardiogram signals, and percent of saturated oxygen.

Recognized for its durability, reliability, and solution to a health care challenge, FreePulse took first place in Engineering World Health's Design Competition and third place the National Institutes of Health's Design by Biomedical Undergraduate Teams (DEBUT) Challenge.

freepulse team

The FreePulse leadership team includes: Reece Stevens (technical development of device); Courtney Koepke (research of the device); Abhishek Pratapa (manufacturing of the device); Akash Patel (business planning), and Ajay Rastogi (user interface design).

"A patient monitor is the Swiss Army Knife of health care," Reece Stevens, biomedical engineering undergraduate student and President of Texas Engineering World Health, says. "It's needed for surgeries and any long-term care procedure, beyond a routine checkup."

Stevens was inspired to lead the effort in developing a low-cost accessible patient monitor after spending three months at an Engineering World Health Summer Institute in rural Rwanda, where he observed only five available patient monitors in a 400-bed hospital.

"In order to check a patient's vital signs, health care workers would hook up a monitor to one person, record vital signs, then cycle through and hook up the monitor to the next patient, creating delays in the treatment and procedures a patient may need to receive," says Stevens.

Stevens and the FreePulse team took into account the challenges he witnessed in Rwanda to engineer a solution that fits the needs of developing areas. Whereas equivalent types of patient monitors cost anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000, the FreePulse device can be made for under $200. It is a small handheld device, with a familiar user interface and a rechargeable lithium battery, which is necessary because power outages are common at health care facilities in developing areas.

Stevens says the next steps are to continue improving the FreePulse prototype and look for opportunities to add functionality.

The team will be recognized with awards from Engineering World Health and NIH DEBUT Challenge at the 2015 Biomedical Engineering Society Meeting in Tampa.