Innovation: Breathing better with technology

In a busy hospital in Yemen, MSF staff work hard to ensure life-saving oxygen is available for the patients who need it most. As demand grows, one biomedical scientist is exploring how technology can help. Ahmed Alhitary blogs…


Can you imagine running out of oxygen?

You start to take lots of shallow breaths, your heart races, you become confused, you have a headache.

This is the reality that faces patients who suffer from medical conditions that affect their breathing.

This very scary problem made me think…

As a biomedical specialist, part of my work involves maintaining and operating the medical technology in the hospital – such as oxygen cylinders and concentrators.

And, when a patient is struggling to breathe, giving them medical grade oxygen can be a life-saving treatment.  

This innovation will help keep patients safe by making monitoring of the oxygen cylinders easier.

So, I wondered whether we could introduce something involving technology that would allow us to monitor the oxygen levels in our tanks throughout the hospital more effectively – making it simpler to ensure that the tanks don’t run low, and life-saving oxygen is always there when patients need it.

The alarm

I came up with two different technological solutions.

The first is an oxygen bottle alarm. I figured that I could use smart technology to monitor the oxygen levels in each bottle.

The innovation will consist of a small printed circuit board – known as a  “PCB” – and a series of sensors that attach to the patient's oxygen cylinder. The PCB will continuously monitor the pressure of the patient’s oxygen tank.


Diagram of the oxygen cylinder alarm
Ahmed's diagram of his oxygen cylinder alarm

When the bottle only has 15% of its oxygen left, an alarm will be triggered. A notification will also be sent to the supply team indicating that the tank needs replacing.

This innovation will help keep patients safe by making monitoring of the oxygen cylinders easier for the nursing and logistics teams.

The tracking system

My second idea is a smart tracking system for hospital oxygen concentrators.

Oxygen concentrators are devices that concentrate oxygen from a gas supply, usually ambient air (the air we normally breathe), by removing nitrogen. They are a safer and cheaper alternative to oxygen cylinders.

If an oxygen concentrator were to suddenly break, patients could be at risk.

At the hospital where I work, there are 36 oxygen concentration units. Our team works hard to keep all of them maintained and functioning.

If an oxygen concentrator were to suddenly break, patients could be at risk. So, to make sure the concentrators are working, I will monitor them using my own tracking system.


Prototype of the oxygen concentrator dashboard
Prototype of the oxygen concentrator dashboard

The tracking system consists of another small printed circuit board which will measure oxygen percentage, outlet flow, outlet pressure, compressor temperature, hour counter and the date the filter was last replaced.

All this information will be sent to a biomedical scientist’s laptop. The updates from each unit will be displayed on a dashboard, making it easy to track when any of the devices need maintenance.  

The story so far

Having secured the grant from an MSF innovation fund – known as the "Sapling Nursery" – I have started to make both of my ideas a reality.

I have begun building the software interface for the oxygen concentrator dashboard, using an online open-source design platform.  

Open-source software is computer code that is not protected by copyright law: anyone can use and alter it.  This allowed me to develop an interface with several data feeds, as well as a series of alarms that allows us to monitor both oxygen levels in the tanks and whether any maintenance is needed on the oxygen purifiers.

The next step

The next stage of developing these innovations is to start creating the hardware; the printed circuit boards and sensors.

Once I have built the hardware components, I will then need to fit them into the oxygen tanks and concentrators.

Then, I need to get the circuit boards to communicate the data they are collecting to the dashboard.

For the components to start talking to each other, I will install a new wireless internet network in the hospital.

This innovation shows us how technology can be applied in a hospital setting to help staff keep patients safe.


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