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Every year, there are nearly 2 million annual stillbirths and neonatal deaths in developing countries attributed to complications during labor. Research has shown that reliable fetal heart rate measurement reduces neonatal mortalities and morbidities in low-resource settings. Despite its known benefits, reliable fetal heart rate monitoring is rarely accomplished in the developing world. Our team traveled to India and Ethiopia, where we observed delivery care in low-resource settings. We learned that fetal heart rate monitoring is often lacking in the developing world due to the low staff-to-patient ratios, the inadequate equipment for monitoring, and the insufficient time and training for finding and counting fetal heart beats. We experienced firsthand the challenge of using the only monitoring device typically available: a cone-shaped device called a Pinard horn. Though Doppler devices are more effective, they are cost-prohibitive, and donated devices break down with no means of repair.
We are creating the BabyBeats fetal heart rate monitor to obtain the baby’s heart rate quickly, reliably, with minimal skill, and at a cost that enables widespread distribution. Our design uses microphone-based technology in an easy-to-apply, reusable form. It includes a simple digital display of the heart rate and audible sounds that are amplified and filtered to make them clearer to hear. The BabyBeats has a rechargeable battery to avoid power dependence and durable housing to withstand harsh environments. The overall size is comparable to a cell phone, which enables easy transport. We estimate the total cost to be less than $10.
Initial testing suggests the time and training required to use the BabyBeats will be greatly reduced in comparison to the Pinard horn and Doppler devices: It has a high tolerance for placement and can obtain a heart rate on at least one-fourth of the abdominal surface. Preliminary testing also shows promise that our device will be at least as accurate as Doppler devices. We are working with obstetricians at Johns Hopkins Hospital to begin human trials, and we have partnered with a university-affiliate NGO to arrange field testing in developing countries. Ultimately, we plan to sell the device as a consumer product in developed nations for personal use during pregnancy; this will provide a source of revenue to supplement manufacturing and distribution of the device in the developing world.