Umthombo 2 - Page 11

Research Chair
Douglas’s excellence in her field was
recognised when she received the
prestigious SARChI Chair in Biomedical
Engineering and Innovation. The main
goal of the SARChI initiative is to
strengthen and improve the research
and innovation capacity of South
African public universities.
“This was a wonderful opportunity
to advance biomedical engineering
and health innovation in South Africa,”
Douglas explains.
As for why this is so important,
Douglas recently captured the essence
perfectly in a piece titled ‘Africa needs
to start creating its own medical
technology. Here’s how’ for The
African countries need to start
producing and developing their own
medical devices. A cadre of suitably
skilled biomedical engineers is needed
for this sort of innovation to take root.
Conversation Africa, where she writes:
“Most of Africa’s medical equipment
is imported. ‘Equipment graveyards’
become the final resting place for
medical devices that aren’t suited to
local conditions. This can include dust,
heat, humidity and an intermittent
supply of electricity …
“African countries need to start
producing and developing their own
medical devices. A cadre of suitably
skilled biomedical engineers is needed
for this sort of innovation to take root.”
This need has led to the
establishment of the African Biomedical
Engineering Mobility project, of which
Douglas is a driving force. It funds
postgraduate education in the field
across the continent.
New initiatives in
health innovation
As an expression of this drive, Douglas
has established an MPhil in health
innovation at UCT. She says this course
was motivated by her experience with
UCT’s postgraduate degree programme
in biomedical engineering, which is
oriented towards the development and
application of technological innovations.
“We identified a need for a
programme with a broader mandate,
which welcomes students from a variety
of backgrounds, because innovation is
not only about technology,” she says.
The programme is intended
to address the gap that often
exists between solutions and their
implementation when context is
neglected. It uses design thinking,
which relies on contextual immersion.
“Our students spend time with
communities, trying to understand the
communities’ experiences and needs,
before attempting to design solutions,”
she explains.
A practical example of the
importance of context is addressing
hearing loss among the elderly in a
low-income area. While the solution
might seem as simple as providing
hearing aids to those affected, or
designing a cheaper hearing aid,
stigma may prevent people from
acknowledging their hearing loss and
seeking assistance. Thus, the problem
to be addressed is far more complex
and technology on its own may not be
the answer.
To share knowledge on addressing
the health needs of the developing
world through innovation, Douglas
also recently launched the Global
Health Innovation journal. One of the
barriers to research and innovation in
low- and middle-income countries is
access to current scientific knowledge
which is often hidden behind
unaffordable journal subscriptions.
Global Health Innovation will be
freely accessible online. The journal
is the result of a partnership between
Northwestern University in the United
States and the universities of Lagos
and Ibadan in Nigeria.
u mthom bo
ania Douglas, director:
Medical Imaging Research
Unit in the Division of
Biomedical Engineering
and the Department of Science
and Technology/National Research
Foundation South African Research
Chair (SARChI) in Biomedical
Engineering and Innovation, doesn’t
identify with the term ‘innovator’.
“I consider innovation as only one
aspect of my work,” she says. “But it’s a
critical component of the postgraduate
education we offer in the Division of
Biomedical Engineering. Our aim is
to create a learning environment that
promotes innovation.”
Nonetheless, Douglas has played
an integral role in assessing and
developing various health technologies.
She has also contributed to the
establishment of the company CapeRay
Medical, which is commercialising a
breast-imaging solution that combines
X-ray imaging and ultrasound. This
combined system will particularly
benefit women with dense breast tissue
for whom X-ray mammography alone
may not be a sufficient diagnostic tool.

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