Canadian charity hopes to bring high tech smartphone ultrasound to rural Africa

Nicole Bogart, CTV News
Published Saturday, June 15, 2019 1:28PM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, June 15, 2019 10:13PM EDT

Diagnostic imaging tools such as x-rays and ultrasounds are considered necessities by Canadian frontline health-care workers.

But these life-saving tools are incredibly difficult to access in rural Uganda, making it hard to diagnose life-threatening illnesses like pneumonia, the number one killer of children under the age of five.

Dr. William Cherniak, an emergency room doctor at Markham Stouffville Hospital, hopes to change that by providing frontline workers with a portable ultrasound device, called Butterfly IQ, which attaches to a smartphone to provide on-the-spot diagnostic imaging.

Through the charity he co-founded, Bridge to Health Medical and Dental, Cherniak and his team are training frontline workers in Uganda to use the device to diagnose conditions like pneumonia.

“Most patients in a low resource setting don’t get access to really good diagnostic imaging,” Cherniak told CTV News.

“You can basically bring it with you anywhere into a really remote rural area … It plugs into the device you pop it on the patient and it’s a single probe rather than three, so it makes it that much easier to diagnose.”

Bridge to Health Medical and Dental partners with local health services to conduct HIV screenings, physical and dental exams, eye checkups, and provides training to local health-care workers.

The team consulted with frontline workers in different communities to see how they could use diagnostic imaging. The overwhelming response was to help diagnose pneumonia cases.

“The reason why they wanted us to focus on pediatric pneumonia is because it’s the most common cause of death in children in low resource settings,” Cherniak explained.

“Many children come with cough, cold, flu-like symptoms, but it’s very challenging to get access to chest x-rays so it’s really hard to know if they have pneumonia.”

Dr. Michelle Lee, pediatric emergency physician at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children and lead trainer for the Bridge to Health program, says that because many pneumonia cases go undiagnosed, delays in treatment are often fatal.

“We do have effective treatment for pneumonia if it’s delivered in a timely fashion,” Lee told CTV News. “So we believe tools like this can save lives.”

Ultrasound images can be uploaded to specialists in Canada and the U.S. who can double check the diagnosis.

Bridge to Health currently operates in communities in Uganda and Kenya.

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