Mashavu will provide East Africans virtual access to health care

Chubby cheeks on all of Kenya’s children -- that’s what Khanjan Mehta, senior research associate in the Department of Electronics and Computer Services in Penn State’s College of Engineering, hopes for the future. By helping to create a program called Mashavu, meaning “chubby-cheeked” in Swahili and regarded by Kenyans as a sign of good health, he is doing his part to help.

“There is one doctor for every 50,000 people in East Africa compared to one doctor for every 390 people in the United States,” said Mehta. This lack of access to doctors means that most Kenyans, especially those living in rural areas, do not get the medical attention they need.

Mashavu will connect rural populations in Kenya and Tanzania with doctors in nearby cities using “telemedicine.” Essentially, the project uses medical diagnostic equipment along with existing cell phone networks to create a health monitoring system. According to estimates, 97 percent of East Africans have access to a mobile phone.

Mashavu began as a project in one of Mehta’s engineering courses and now involves a multidisciplinary team of students and faculty, including Peter Butler, associate professor of bioengineering, from throughout Penn State.

Over the last two years, 161 students representing 28 majors across eight colleges have participated in the project. This summer, the team will test the effectiveness of three kiosk stations within rural communities (the team spent the last two summers setting up the system, working with both Kenyan and Tanzanian students). At the kiosks, trained station operators will collect patients’ medical information, such as weight, body temperature and blood pressure. The kiosks will then transmit this information over a cell phone link to a Web-based portal for medical professionals, who will view the information and respond with recommendations.

“In addition to giving patients ‘virtual’ access to doctors, the program also serves as a method for storing their medical records, which can be used by doctors to observe trends and diagnose diseases,” said Mehta. The service will be free for children, and adults will pay a small fee (about 80 cents).

If the technology proves effective, Mehta and his team plan to commercialize the technology.

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This article is from the spring issue of Penn State Outreach magazine.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010