Smartphone app monitors safe breast milk

With a portable receipt printer, an android phone, and a temperature probe, hospital staff are now able to track the milk and regulate the temperature during pasteurization for around $700 instead of costing between $10,000 and $50,000. 

Photo by Benjamin Hagood

The capabilities of mobile devices have been expanding to serve purposes far beyond communication. More recently, this trend has centered around creating smartphone applications for medical purposes.

A project out of the UW uses new technology to monitor safe breast milk pasteurization with a mobile device. This app, called FoneAstra, was developed by UW computer science and engineering (CSE) graduate student Rohit Chaudhri in collaboration with the Seattle-based nongovernmental organization PATH and the UW Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering (HCDE).

“Pasteurization allows for the milk to be heated to a temperature where the harmful components are being killed off while still maintaining the nutrition,” Chaudhri said.

FoneAstra has a temperature probe that is mounted to a wall when in use. The probe is placed into a control jar containing water that sits on the same stand as three jars filled with the donated breast milk. The device is then connected to a mobile phone via Bluetooth. As the milk is heated, the process is monitored through this device. The smart phone app guides the user through the procedure. 

When the milk is heated, the phone beeps, and the milk is transferred so the cooling process can start. A Bluetooth-enabled printer prints the report on a label that can be secured onto each of the jars of donated milk. 

“The CSE department did most of the programming while we researched the users — who was using [the app], how they’re using it, and what context they were using it in,” said Darivanh Vlachos, HCDE graduate student who contributed to this project.

The researchers work with babies who have had troubles since birth. The struggles they face include being orphaned, being born preterm or with a low birth weight, and being born to an HIV-positive or unconscious mother. What all these babies have in common is their vulnerable state, need for the nutrition only available in breast milk, and their lack of access to it.

Before the collaboration began, Kierstan Israel-Ballard, technical officer at PATH in the maternal and child-health and nutrition program, had developed this flash-heat pasteurization method to help babies in need of donor breast milk.

PATH connected the technology to the in-country collaborators, mainly the Human Milk Banking Association of South Africa (HMBASA).

From its research, HCDE found that the main users would be nurses, who had educational background and training, and volunteers, who had very little education.

“We had to accommodate for someone who had very little education to someone who was educated,” Vlachos said. “We also found that we needed to accommodate for the quality assurance person on the other side — most likely a doctor or a researcher.”

Compared to the commercial pasteurizers, FoneAstra strives to be more accessible, user-friendly, and inexpensive.

Chaudhri said commercial pasteurizers often require electricity or a temperature probe to be plugged into a computer. These requirements are hard to accommodate in low-income areas.

“That’s why we started to think about how we can lower these barriers and simplify the processes,” Chaudhri said.

Israel-Ballard said it costs anywhere from $20 to $120,000 for just the commercial pasteurization machines. The costs go up when they include the staff and the preserving equipment such as freezers. FoneAstra, with all components, costs only about $700.

“Ultimately what we want to do is to redesign the whole pasteurization process so that it is more accessible,” Israel-Ballard said.

So far, the group has had two successful runs of deployment in South Africa in collaboration with the HMBASA. FoneAstra is now operating at five different locations.

“The plan for the future is that HMBASA will make this technology generally available to any establishment that wants to try it,” Chaudhri said.

Vlachos said her motivation comes from her personal experience as a mother of two boys.

“I really believe in breast-feeding and wholly believe that if every mom could breast-feed, they should,” Vlachos said. “To be able to process the milk so that these babies could drink a mom’s milk, I think, is pretty amazing.”

Reach reporter Diane Han at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @di_aneee

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