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A Low-Cost X-Ray Machine That Works In Places Where It Gets Really, Really Hot

It’s more reliable than developed-world models, too.

X-ray machines are a fundamental part of modern medicine, key to treating everything from tuberculosis to broken bones. And yet, an extraordinary amount of people still live without access to them–about two-thirds of the planet, according to the World Health Organization.

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The first reason for that is obvious: X-rays are expensive and lots of places are poor. The second is more subtle: The machines are often not designed for hot, humid places, like the tropical parts of Africa and South America. They also don’t deal well with shaky power supply.

Dr. Klaus Schönenberger is leading an effort to build a cheaper, more durable alternative. The GlobalDiagnostiX machine will cost about 1/10th of a conventional unit over a 10-year lifetime, he says, and provide a more reliable service than available now.

“We completely redesigned an X-ray based on the needs and obstacles in southern countries. We looked at every component and started from scratch,” he says.

GlobalDiagnostiX, which is being developed at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland, saves money several ways. First, certain functions–like the arm that aligns with the body part you want to look at–are mechanical. On a first-world model they would be electronic. That cuts materials costs and also makes the machine less susceptible to breakdown, Schönenberger says.

It’s also completely digital, doing away with the need for physical prints. Printing one frame of a diseased lung costs two or three dollars in some poor countries; rendering digitally costs little after you’ve bought the equipment. “We did something kind of heretical if you talk to people from [manufacturers such as] Siemens or Philips. They believe under a certain price range, everything has to be analog,” Schönenberger says.

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Finally, GlobalDiagnostiX plans to offer full service with its product. “It’s always a problem in African and southern countries where people don’t budget for the maintenance fees. We integrate that into the price,” Schönenberger says. Managing the maintenance in-house should keep costs down for everybody and improve reliability.

Sylvain Liechti

The GlobalDiagnostiX also works off-grid. It has its own generator plus a supercapacitor kit that can deliver high jolts of power when needed. Normally, because they need lots of instant power, X-rays are prone to breaking hospital electric systems (and of course grid power isn’t dependable many places, in any case).

The project started in 2010 and has received about $3.7 million from the Swiss government, a foundation, and a group of 40 doctors and researchers who’ve stumped up their own money. Schönenberger is now looking for a further $1.5 million to test the GlobalDiagnostiX at the University Hospital Center of Yaoundé, in Cameroon, and to work on ideas for training and telemedicine services.

Ideally, each machine would be linked to a co-operative network where doctors could seek each other’s advice. Countries like Cameroon have a severe lack of radiologists. It produces only a half dozen new people a year, and many are soon hired away to lucrative work outside district hospitals.

Schönenberger has formed a company with entrepreneur Bertrand Klaiber to market the GlobalDiagnostiX . The pair plans to finish the prototype within the next year.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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