Students in Michigan Health Engineered for All Lives (M-HEAL) will be heading south to warmer weather like many University students embarking on spring break trips next week. But rather than relaxing on the beach, they will be visiting natives in rural Guatemala.

The group of eight undergraduate and graduate engineering students will be going to the Central American country to do research on their newest invention, a remote stethoscope, which has a recorder connected to it. Once fully developed, the stethoscope will allow clinicians to record patients’ heart sounds and send them via cellular networks to hospitals in larger cities, like Guatemala City, where trained physicians can analyze the sounds.

Rackham student Nathaniel Skinner, the project manager, said the remote stethoscope will help doctors diagnose patients.

“The rural clinics will record the heart sounds of the babies that are in that area and then send them over the network to city centers,” he said. “There, trained physicians can listen to them, and while they might not be able to fully diagnose them, they can probably screen them and say if there’s a problem or not.”

Skinner said that each year, about 1,500 Guatemalan babies are born with cardiac defects. He said these deficiencies could lead to major health complications later in life. According to Skinner, about two-thirds of Guatemala’s population lives in rural areas without access to the developed health care systems of urban hospitals.

Because it is such a “laborious trip” to go to the city, Skinner said rural residents don’t get screened on a regular basis and are unable to detect cardiac defects. He said he hopes the remote stethoscope will encourage rural residents to go to city hospitals for medical help more often.

“Now, they might be able to get some feedback from people that listened to their electronic vitals and say, ‘Oh, I hear something that’s a little irregular. You should probably come in,’” Skinner said. “And they might take the risks involved in taking that trip into the city.”

After the excursion this break, M-HEAL will create a more developed version of the device. All versions of the tool will undergo such “rapid and extensive” changes, Skinner said, that the initial device will probably not be recognizable in a year.

“It’s just kind of proof-of-concept. We’re not going to be using it on people down there,” he said. “It’s sort of a working prop so that we can see how the people will interact with it.”

According to Skinner, M-HEAL aims to leverage the engineering skills students learn at the University to tackle health problems. The Appropriate Technology Collaborative, an Ann Arbor-based non-profit organization, approached M-HEAL in November with the request for a device to meet this specific need in Guatemala.

ATC is associated with the Aldo Castaneda Foundation in Guatemala — named for Harvard Medical School Prof. Aldo Castaneda, a native of Guatemala. With its donations, the foundation provides pro bono surgery for needy patients in Guatemala City.

Skinner said the main goal of the trip — which the students will embark on tomorrow — is for them to get a feel for the situation and familiarize themselves with the people they’re trying to serve.

“It’s very important for everyone in the group to have a much deeper, more visceral experience of the conditions, what’s available and the needs of the people that we’re going to be trying to address with this technology (in order) to give them the technology in a way that’s perfectly accessible to them,” he said.

Skinner said his goal for the trip is to solve all the “engineering and cultural determinants that have to be flushed out” so the most appropriate device can be produced.

“I think there is a lot there, even before we start churning out engineering work, just getting in touch with the people,” he said.

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