NAIROBI – Ugandan doctors are giving new mothers artificial intelligence-enabled devices to remotely monitor their health in a first-of-its-kind study aiming to curb thousands of preventable maternal deaths across Africa, medics and developers said.

Doctors at Mbarara Hospital in western Uganda will give devices to more than 1,000 new mothers who have undergone cesarean section births to wear on their upper arms at all times.

The phone-sized gadget transmits patients’ data such as respiratory rate, oxygen levels, pulse, temperature, and blood pressure to a desktop or mobile platform. Algorithms detect at-risk cases and alert doctors.

Joseph Ngonzi from Mbarara University of Science and Technology, which is conducting the study, said it would help “improve monitoring in a resource-constrained environment.”

The World Health Organization says almost 300,000 women worldwide die each year from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth – that’s more than 800 women every day.

Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for more than two-thirds of those deaths due to poorly-equipped medical facilities and limited healthcare workers. 

UN figures show more women and newborns survive now than ever before. Still, nations committed to ending maternal deaths face funding shortfalls, according to women’s rights groups.

New York-based software firm Current Health, which developed the technology, said it had the potential to improve postpartum healthcare for women and new mothers across Africa.

CEO Chris McCann said the devices – which require wireless internet and electricity – may not yet be practical for some African countries where connectivity and power are unreliable.

McCann said the internet and electricity coverage was quickly expanding across the continent.

Addressing concerns over patients’ data privacy, he said participants provide written, informed consent – and their data is encrypted. Uganda set up data protection and privacy legislation in 2019. 

“We only use that data to deliver our service and make it better for patients,” he said. “I believe patients should clearly know exactly what is happening with their data. We make this very transparent to them.”

—Reuters

By Nita Bhalla