“I can tell you that rats destroy up to 60% of health equipment in Africa,” Ssali said
Much of the damage to expensive diagnostic equipment in African health facilities is a result of bites from rats, a Ugandan consultant biomedical engineer revealed on Monday.
Eng. Joseph Ssali, who holds vast experience in installation of health equipment in hospitals across the continent, told delegates at a conference in Kampala that rats are the worst enemies of the devices.
"I can tell you that rats destroy up to 60% of health equipment in Africa," Ssali said at the first Biennial National Uganda National Biomedical Engineering Conference at Hotel Africa on Monday.
Ssali sought to highlight the dangers that exist when biomedical engineers are not consulted in the management of health equipment including x-rays and CT scans.
For instance, he narrated, cables of a CT scan installed at one unnamed facility were eaten up by rats, costing the institution over $5,000 to replace.
Biomedical engineers are professionals who maintain and repair machines for diagnosing medical problems. They design medical equipment and devices, artificial internal organs or synthetic body parts.
In Africa, the profession is relatively new-just about 10 years old in Uganda, it has been in existence in the developed world for nearly half a century.
Without biomedical engineers, the functioning of health equipment would be at stake and costs of hiring experts to maintain them or procure new equipment would be unmanageable.
According to Ssali, it is common practice for health institutions to procure machines and install them in facilities without consulting biomedical engineers, raising potential risks to patients or caregivers.
"There are cases where radiation equipment has been installed next to antenatal rooms, which is dangerous. Consideration not made to patient safety," he explains.
Equipment that emit radiation require careful assessment of numerous factors including: location, including room size, wall thickness, power supply and patient safety, Ssali said.
The conference, held under the theme: ‘Enhancing Healthcare through Biomedical Engineering,' seeks to promote biomedical engineering in Uganda and strengthen partnerships among key players.
It also serves as an opportunity to showcase innovations in medical equipment technology designed to help improve health service delivery.
Experts at the two-day conference want biomedical engineers to be involved in the planning, procurement, installation, operation, maintenance, repair, and disposal is of health equipment.
"We want a multi-disciplinary approach to management of medical devices. Right now, we are called upon only when there is a problem," said Sam Byamukama, the secretary of the Uganda National Association for Medical and Hospital Engineers in an interview with New Vision.
Experts are also pushing for stronger regulation and standards for health equipment sent to the country as donations to ensure that they are safe and efficient.
Many health facilities in Uganda rely on health equipment donations. Although most donations have had a positive impact, some donations come when they are obsolete or without supporting guidelines.
A high rate of health equipment breakdown in Uganda and Africa came to light at the meeting, which experts blame on inadequate training and management challenges.
Dr Robert Ssekitoleko, a lecturer of biomedical engineering at Makerere University College of Health Sciences says biomedical engineers need to be fully integrated in Uganda's health system.
He says the ministry and private health institutions are starting to acknowledge the role of biomedical engineers and recruiting them into service.
The ministry has traditionally recruited electrical and mechanical engineers to maintain and repair health equipment, often without sufficient skills in health.
Currently, there are about 50 registered biomedical engineering graduates in Uganda. With limited funding, much of the training for biomedical engineers relies on donors and volunteers.
The first biomedical engineering programme started at the Earnest Cook Ultrasound Research and Education Institute based at Mengo Hospital, 10 years ago.
Kyambogo University established the programme soon after, followed by Makerere University two years ago while Mbarara University of Science and Technology will host its first bachelors students this year.
Unlike other types of engineers, biomedical engineers train in both medicine and engineering. However, they are yet to have a scheme of service and a definite structure under the health ministry.
Although biomedical engineers have a foot-print in the health system, they are regulated by the Engineers Registration Board, the body responsible for all types of engineers.