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6 February, 2020 - 20:25 By Tony Quested

Arm tablet for remote health workers trialled in Africa

A rugged tablet devised by Cambridge technology great Arm is set to revolutionise the lives of last-mile health workers and the level of care they can offer patients in remote environments.

The solution will enable health workers to store vital medical records digitally rather than having to lug heavy, document-laden baggage through challenging environments.

Arm says the tablet could eventually be adapted for other key uses in areas such as agriculture, education, field conservation and disaster relief. Arm says initial results from the prototype health tablet’s field trials with community healthcare workers in Bangladesh and Tanzania, facilitated by WHO partners mPower and PATH, “are very promising.”

The most positive feedback is coming from the device’s significantly increased battery life, according to Fiona Riggall, Arm’s sustainability manager.

She says: “With Arm-based mobile devices already offering multi-day battery life to consumers, it was only a matter of refining the Arm technology within the rugged Arm tablet to maximise this. 

“Workers using the prototype repeatedly commented about the improved healthcare service and the increased number of patients they think the device could help them provide.

“Our research into market demand has also shown that while we designed this rugged Arm tablet for the healthcare sector primarily, it has the potential to be a useful tool in agriculture, education, field conservation and disaster relief. We’re now working to identify the right set of partners to take the project forward.”

The prototype will be shown for the first time at Mobile World Congress 2020 in Barcelona (February 24-27).

Arm is working with a number of world-class collaborators in the project and Fiona Riggall explains the rationale for the invention.

She says: “Many remote locations have an unreliable electrical supply, if one exists at all; the ability to charge a device isn’t a given. In Tanzania, for example, 73 per cent of the population lives in rural areas and only 32 per cent of households have access to electricity.

“Working environments present additional physical challenges: high ambient temperatures trigger speed throttling as devices slow themselves down in an effort to prevent overheating. 

“Heat also significantly reduces battery life and can even cause damage to the device’s casing. In extremely dry conditions, dust can cause problems, too, causing devices to overheat or blocking charge ports. And that’s not to mention the most fragile part of any tablet – its screen.

“Finding a commercial device at an affordable price that could withstand these conditions proved to be a challenge, so BHBM ( Be [email protected], Be Mobile) decided to ask Arm for help.

“Arm is a long term supporter of BHBM, a global initiative targeting disease prevention through mobile technology. This challenge gave us an opportunity to strengthen our partnership, as well as a new way to ensure Arm technology helps realise the United Nations’ Global Goals.

“Despite the direct design and manufacture of an endpoint device being outside Arm’s usual remit as an IP design company, we knew immediately that we wanted to be involved: if we could design a device that met the requirements, it could quite literally revolutionise the lives of these last-mile health workers and the level of care they could offer to their patients.

“But we wanted to be sure that we were investing in a device that was fit for purpose, so we carried out 96 interviews with experts and healthcare workers across Bangladesh, Tanzania and Zambia to understand exactly what their needs were.

“This gave us our ideal specification: a rugged Arm tablet that has a battery life of three to four days, a front and back camera with flash for simple diagnostics and rugged casing to withstand heat, water and dust.”

The prototype rugged Arm tablet in use at a rural medical facility in Tanzania

Riggall says Arm then mapped this specification to the closest 45 off-the-shelf rugged tablet devices but none met more than 60 per cent of requirements. 

“Further research led the company to high-end industrial-grade devices which, while closer to what it wanted, were expensive and over-specified for Arm’s needs.

Riggall said that it was at that point Arm decided that if the device didn’t exist, then perhaps the company should help invent it. 

Thanks to the support of the Department for International Development’s Business Partnership Fund it was able to do just that.

In a glowing example of international collaboration, Arm drew on the field knowledge of BHBM, the development and management experience of Accenture Development Partnerships, pro bono legal advice from international law firm Bird & Bird and the technical expertise of Arm engineering, research, legal, trade compliance and development solutions teams.

Riggall says: “Having input from such a wide range of people with a broad spectrum of specialist skills played a significant role in shaping the prototype device. 

“People who do this regularly know that a device must achieve a certain level of compliance and certification before it’s considered safe to use. That’s where having in-house advice on risk assessments and compliance came into its own.

“Finding a manufacturer willing to develop a tablet prototype at a price-point that development agencies and governments could afford also proved to be quite a challenge.

“But once we got over that hurdle, it was tremendously exciting to know that we were one step closer to making this solution a reality.”

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