Saving Lives with a Cell Phone: How Mobile Tech is Making the World a Happier and Healthier Place

It’s high time for some good news, right?  While cutting-edge health tech innovations can be a little hard to follow when you’re not an engineer, this one’s all about accessibility – in more ways than one.  In fact, it’s so mobile and user-friendly that it attaches to a smartphone, and it has the power to diagnose critical conditions in people who may otherwise have to travel a hundred miles to get an X-ray.  In other words, when scaled, the impact of a device like this could change global health as we know it. It’s called the Butterfly, and it can probably fit in your pocket.

Recently profiled in the New York Times, the Butterfly IQ device was initially developed in 2016 by a Connecticut computer engineering company, Butterfly Network.  Founder Jonathan Rothberg told the Times, “My team is engineers and computer scientists. We’d love to be able to save lives the way doctors do, but we can’t.”  So they decided to invent a way that could. The groundbreaking Butterfly device is a small, “electric shaver”-sized ultrasound scanner that connects to a smartphone screen and provides real-time ultrasound imaging in the palm of your hand.  

The Butterfly device

Odds are, you yourself have had medical imaging done and can appreciate the massive value of the diagnostic tool.  Think heart problems, internal issues, pregnancy, and the near-infinite number of other conditions that can be managed more effectively with images of exactly what’s going on.  Despite the huge value though, a whole two-thirds of the population currently lack access to imaging, according to Rothberg. His brilliant solution? Put an ultrasound on a chip.  Okay – easier said than done. But after five years of iteration, the Butterfly Network team finally arrived at a handheld, chip-powered device that – get this – costs less than $2,000.  

A standard ultrasound machine – the slightly less portable, and slightly more pricey, imaging option

With most new ultrasound machines running between $20,000 and $75,000 (cranking up the prices on the patient’s end as well), a $2,000 scanner has incredibly bright implications for healthcare in rural, geographically isolated areas of the world.  In the Times article, a picture is painted of how donated devices are already making a diagnostic impact in an area of western Uganda – and perhaps more critically, empowering communities to become self-sufficient with their own healthcare.  Largely intended to help catch early signs of pneumonia in children – an epidemic in the area – the Butterfly has proved to be life-saving on a number of other occasions as well. One child facing potential kidney failure was diagnosed with a blockage, which his parents discovered a simple operation could fix.  

Another less obvious benefit to this inspiring tech is its connectivity with smartphones, meaning images can quickly be uploaded and shared.  This way, medical providers training on the ground in Uganda can have their diagnoses confirmed by experienced doctors as far away as Toronto.  The goal, according to local doctors on the ground, is to reach a diagnosis match with the Toronto experts at least 80% of the time. And while learning to read ultrasound images can often take a long time to master, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (an early sponsor) is working on software to make training easier, ultimately getting more medical personnel ready to go in areas that require the resource.

An exciting benefit of the Butterfly IQ: access to pregnancy ultrasounds

Butterfly Network is likely a company that we’ll be hearing a lot more from soon, especially as diagnostic successes continue to roll in from rural, underserved communities.  While medical diagnoses may not always seem like the happiest of news, the practical reality of this device is that it’s detecting problems early and saving lives in the process – which is definitely something to be inspired by.  For more heartwarming content on the opposite end of diagnosing health issues, we might look to a question that medical providers can now ask women across the globe, thanks to the Butterfly: “Would you like to see your unborn baby?”

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