Smart pill dispenser a shrewd solution for Africa

Professor Faith-Michael Uzoka's collaborative invention could change health care in Africa

Professor Faith-Michael Uzoka

Faith-Michael Uzoka, PhD, has taught at various universities throughout the globe since the early 1990s.

What does computer science have to do with health care? Everything, if you're Faith-Michael Uzoka, PhD.

The Mount Royal professor is already known for creating soft-computing models/systems for efficient and effective diagnosis of tropical confusable diseases. Now, he's partnered with Gift Arnold Mugisha, a "genius" high school student in Africa to change the face of health care on the continent. They've invented a smart pill dispenser doubling as an inanimate medical assistant that is equipped with remote communication capabilities between the patient and a medical professional.

"I see many possibilities for its use. In the hospital, for example, if the nurse is not there, the patient can collect their pills themselves. Or, if they are in distress, they can press a button and speak to the doctor or nurse, even if they are in a remote location," says Uzoka, who teaches with MRU's Department of Mathematics and Computing. "A number of countries have the problem of access to medical care, including Canada. We are improving access with this device.

"And this type of equipment is very useful for those who are cognitively challenged. It has the ability to remind you to take your pills and to even call you by name. You can program in any kind of message."

It's fitting that remote communication is a key component in the invention. After all, the pair collaborated almost daily on their device despite being on different sides of the world. Initially, Mugisha's idea was a pill dispenser that would help patients adhere to their course of treatment, thereby decreasing instances of drug resistance. But his "aha!" moment remained just an idea until he met Uzoka in January 2015 at the Consortium for Affordable Medical Technologies (CAMTech) in Uganda. Uzoka, who is originally from Nigeria, was hosting a workshop at CAMTech as a Carnegie African Diaspora Fellow.

"Professor Michael has been a great mentor, but he is also a partner and friend. He has helped source for crowd and personal funds for our projects. He has also helped in generating ideas that have moved the project forward," Mugisha, 20, writes in an email from his boarding school in Uganda. "He is an awesome person to work with."

Gift Arnold Mugisha

Gift Arnold Mugisha poses with the smart pill dispenser.

Uzoka and Mugisha recently won one of the two Best Presentation Awards at the Information Systems and Technology (IST) Africa Conference in Windhoek, Namibia. Currently, the smart pill dispenser - which has been granted a preliminary patent - is housed in a tall, narrow wooden box, like an upper kitchen cabinet. It is equipped with a smart camera and GSM-enabled communications module that uses a SIM card and modem, located in the box. On the front of the cabinet, there is a keypad, an LCD display, a metal handle and a round opening where the pills come out. But expect the look to change: integrating feedback from IST, the pair are working on making the device smaller and more efficient. And it will be scalable in terms of affordable production.

Developing technology that will make a real difference in people's lives is reflective of Uzoka's outlook, which is "very community based," says Jonathan Withey, DPhil, Dean of the Faculty of Science and Technology at MRU. He says his colleague is a multilayered changemaker who examines issues from various perspectives, all with an eye to coming up with a pragmatic solution.

"This is a good example of an individual who has a strong background in technology and computer science and is blending that with a clear sense of purpose to give back in new and unique ways," Withey says.

And while a high school student had the spark that initiated the smart pill dispenser, Withey thinks there may be more than a few MRU students willing to lend their brain power to the project as it continues to evolve.

"One of the things that we pride ourselves on in Science and Technology is interconnecting teaching and research for the benefit of our students. I imagine there will be undergraduate students of Michael's who will be very interested in this project."


Smart pill dispenser
Audio module: This module relays pre-recorded information from the memory card, in the language of the patient, applying varying emotional structures that target different age groups to reduce the level of anxiety associated with taking medicine, especially in children. Uzoka and Mugisha are currently working on providing the system with the ability to further personalize the greeting through pre-recorded voices of their loved ones (e.g. parents).

Messaging module:
Uzoka and Mugisha have utilized GSM capabilities to provide notifications to patients and bi-directional messaging between the patient and the medical practitioner. Patients receive medication timing reminders and dosage instructions, while the nurse (or any appropriate medical practitioner) receives a dosage completion notification once the patient collects the pill from the pill dispenser. There is also a speak-back mechanism that works with the audio unit, enabling audio communication between the patient and the medical practitioner.

Emergency module: This module is activated by the press of a button, and sends a pre-recorded distress message to the medical practitioner in the event of an emergency resulting from medicine administration. The utility of this module cannot be overemphasized, especially in long-term care facilities and large hospitals with few medical attendants.

Visual module: This consists of a smart camera setup with audio talkback that enables the doctor to directly talk to the patient. The doctor receives live videos from the patient, which helps in monitoring the adherence behaviour of the patient, especially in a hospital setting. With on-board motion sensors, the device can send an alarm to the medical practitioner in the event of a fall or some type of emergency. We are currently examining the privacy implications of this module, especially in home environments. In addition to the camera, the system has a colour coded light indicator for the auditory impaired.

Experiment and invent at the Faculty of Science and Technology.

Read more about Faith-Michael Uzoka's work in Africa in the Spring 2015 issue of Summit.

July 12, 2017
― Ruth Myles

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