Applied medicine and engineering solve one of obstetrics’ oldest problems

28 May 2019 | Avant media

“Medicine is both an art and a science. With what I’m doing right now, the potential impact on both ends of that spectrum is huge. For that I feel nothing but gratitude.”

Dr Vinayak Smith (pictured above), a Doctor in Training and Avant Foundation Grant recipient, says graciously as he introduces his groundbreaking study and the subject of his PhD study.

In collaboration with his colleagues in chemical engineering at Monash University, he is developing the world’s first medical-grade foetal movement monitor.

“We’ve unlocked the device that will help monitor foetal movement and it’s called Fetal Kicks. Mothers can now look to a future where they have their foetal movements tracked continuously and reliably for the first time. Importantly, we want them to leave the worrying to us,” Dr Smith says.

Dr Penny Browne, Chair of the Avant Foundation Board, is excited Avant is sponsoring this ground-breaking initiative: “This is the future of medicine, here now and we’re thrilled to be supporting a Doctor in Training to drive this technology to market.”

A problem to solve 

Holding a Masters of Reproductive Medicine and a Diploma in Law, Dr Smith is a veritable entrepreneur and researcher in the making.

A stint working in Alice Springs hit home for him, highlighting the unique challenges facing patients and medical professionals in remote areas. Dr Smith still practices in regional areas, which he says is a whole different ball game to the city, “The decision-making dynamics a physician has in a rural centre are very different to what you have in the city, where resources are plentiful and there are no transfer times or costs associated,” he says.

His current work draws heavily on these experiences and the desire to do better for patients in remote areas.

Completing his PhD at Monash University, Dr Smith is collaborating with the university’s Department of Chemical Engineering to develop Fetal Kicks. He says it will, “Help with decision-making, identify high-risk pregnancies, rationalise care and make sure the people who need care, receive it more efficiently”.

“People don’t want to be in hospital unless they have to, and we’re building technology to transition in-patient care to out-patient,” he adds.

Stillbirth rate same today as 20 years ago 

Australia loses six babies every day to stillbirth. A grave statistic which has remained unchanged in 20 years; it is the subject of a recent Senate enquiry.

“We can do better. We think at least 30% of stillbirths are due to preventable causes,” Dr Smith says. Although the reasons for this are multi-factorial, he says there was clearly a gap in what could be done for mothers and babies, he knew technology could fill.

Wearable and smaller than a bandaid, Fetal Kicks provides the ability to monitor foetal movements 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which is a world-first.

“Another thing I really like about Fetal Kicks is that it individualises data to build a profile for each mother of their unique foetal movements and then tells them what’s normal for their baby,” Dr Smith says. The device will eventually be able to tell the mother what is abnormal for them and when they should go to hospital to alert health professionals.

Mothers willing to pay for reassurance 

So far patient feedback has been positive and consumer interest is high, “In women who presented with reduced foetal movements, 93% indicated that they would buy Fetal Kicks,” Dr Smith says. “What mothers are telling us is that they want to feel reassured about their movements, an element which even in this day and age, we cannot do as clinicians,” he adds.

Hospitals will also benefit from only needing to investigate and intervene in mothers who really need it, thereby protecting the sanctity of pregnancy and avoiding over-medicalisation. This is opposed to having everyone experiencing reduced foetal movement coming into the maternity unit, as is the case now.

“We hope this will contribute to reducing the stillbirth rate, which currently available interventions and management have hardly made a dent on,” Dr Smith said.

The future is bright

It seems as if Dr Smith was born into the right era, “It’s really about those things lining up, right place at the right time. Ten years ago this would have been impossible in terms of technology or mindset,” he observes.

He says it’s a wonderful time to be a doctor, “Being in medical technology actually helps me make sure the patient is getting the best care that’s relevant to them. And they are the most important stakeholder in this whole thing.”

Specific details about the study and the device are confidential, in order to protect commercial interests. Stay tuned to learn more about the outcomes of the study, which are expected in early 2020.

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