PhD student bags prestigious social impact prize with lifesaving device

PhD student bags prestigious social impact prize with lifesaving device

Maureen Etuket, a doctoral student in Industrial Engineering at Stellenbosch University (SU), is on a mission to prevent maternal deaths caused by excessive bleeding after birth (postpartum haemorrhage – PPH). Hailing from Kampala in Uganda, Etuket says she always had the desire to solve medical problems and contribute to the public healthcare space.

Determined to help save the lives of millions of mothers around the world, she and her team at Pumzi Devices Uganda Limited developed a prototype called the SMART PVD device (SMART Postpartum Haemorrhage Volumetric Drape) that could help improve the diagnosis and management of blood loss after childbirth. They recently won the Mandela Rhodes Foundation’s award for social impact in Africa – the 2023 Äänit Prize of $38 000 (approximately R700 000) – for this invention.

​The oldest of four siblings, Etuket says she is grateful to God for this award as it will go a long way towards helping them finish the prototype and make the device available for use in hospitals – hopefully by 2025. She credits the award to the hard work of the entire team.

In 2020, she co-founded Pumzi Devices with Dr Peter Kavuma, an emergency physician from Makerere University where she was enrolled for a Bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Engineering.  Etuket, who came to South Africa in 2021 on a Mandela Rhodes Foundation scholarship, points out that Pumzi Devices aims to solve emergency healthcare problems by using biomedical engineering principles.

Having witnessed the suffering of women in hospitals in Uganda, Etuket says she realised that something had to be done to prevent excessive bleeding.

“While I was doing clinical trials in one of the hospitals in Uganda, I discovered that many of the nurses just used visual estimation (using their eyes) to tell that a woman is bleeding excessively after having given birth. When I asked them how they know that a woman is having PPH, they just said they can tell by experience.

“I then understood why PPH is sometimes called a ‘silent death’. After giving birth, a woman is left on the bed. By the time the nurses and midwives return to her, she has no pulse because she has lost a lot of blood.”

Etuket then engaged with students she was lecturing at Kampala’s Ernest Cook Ultrasound Research and Education Institute on how this problem could be addressed. Together they came up with the idea of a SMART PVD device that can measure the amount of blood lost after childbirth.

Etuket believes this device could make a world of difference to doctors, nurses and midwives in hospitals with understaffed wards.

She explains: “Before a woman gives birth, a drape (blood collection container) is attached to the bed so that the blood can flow into it for measurement.

“Our device also has an electronic module which we put inside this bag, and it sounds an alarm when the blood has reached a certain level. This alarm alerts doctors and midwives to attend to a woman who might be in danger. The electronic module is not connected to the blood and hence does not touch the blood.

“When you’re able to know how much blood a woman is losing, you’re able to deliver the appropriate care on time because there’s planning that goes into it. Sometimes the theatre needs to be ready, sometimes it’s about the blood transfusion. The blood bank has to be notified; they need to prepare a couple of pints of blood. Sometimes the doctor must be notified on time.”

Although the prototype is still in its developmental phase, Etuket is confident that the final product will be a game-changer in public healthcare not just in Uganda, but also in other parts of the world, especially in low- and middle-income countries.

“Postpartum haemorrhage is not just a problem in Uganda; it is also a concern in other parts of Africa, including South Africa. We must find ways to prevent excessive bleeding after birth as this is one of the leading causes of maternal mortality worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation. Women do not have to die from this.”

Although she is far away from the rest of her team, Etuket says they have online meetings once a month to talk about projects, marketing and the well-being of the group. She has an exceptional team onsite in Uganda.

She is passionate about supporting young innovators to take their ideas forward. Part of her PhD at SU will be to develop a localisation roadmap for medical devices in South Africa by using an innovation systems framework that can help innovators overcome the obstacles that prevent them from converting their ideas to products for the market.

She already laid the groundwork for this when she obtained her Master’s degree in Health innovation at the University of Cape Town in 2022.

“It’s a rare privilege to encounter a student like Maureen. Given her impressive track record as an innovator, I’m incredibly excited about her potential to bridge her PhD research to practice. She is going to make waves,” says her doctoral supervisor Prof Sara Grobbelaar, Research Fellow at the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in STI Policy at SU. ​

Author: Corporate Communication & Marketing / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie & Bemarking [Alec Basson]