News items Thomas van den Heuvel wins Stairway to Impact Award for safer pregnancies using AI

1 December 2021

Radboudumc researcher Thomas van den Heuvel receives the Stairway to Impact Award from Dutch Research Council NWO. He receives this prize for the development of the BabyChecker, a smartphone application that allows midwives to make ultrasounds during pregnancies, with the aim of reducing maternal mortality in resourse-limited countries. The BabyChecker is currently used in several African countries.

Every day, more than 800 women die as a consequence of their pregnancy; the vast majority of them live in African countries. To improve monitoring of pregnant women in these countries, Thomas van den Heuvel developed the BabyChecker. This is a smartphone application that allows midwives to make an ultrasound from pregnant women. With the help of Artificial Intelligence, the BabyChecker detects high-risk pregnancies, for example women with a low-lying placenta or a fetus in breech presentation. This makes it possible for women at risk to travel in time to a hospital for the delivery of the baby.

NWO rewards researcher Thomas van den Heuvel with the Stairway to Impact Award, specifically intended for scientific research with a major social impact. He receives this award because he not only developed this application, but also ensured that the BabyChecker is used in various African countries. For this, he works together with Delft Imaging. As Van den Heuvel explains: "The BabyChecker is very easy to use. A midwife receives a short instruction before she can start working with it. The app does not require an internet connection and works in combination with a low-cost ultrasound device. An ultrasound device in the Netherlands costs around 30,000-100,000 euros, but the BabyChecker only costs 3,000 euros,"

Ultrasound for youth health physicians and general practitioners

As far as Van den Heuvel is concerned, his work doesn’t stop here. Together with his colleagues professors Chris de Korte and Bram van Ginneken, he is developing more apps with this technology that can be used in more situations, starting with youth health physicians and general practitioners in the Netherlands. Van den Heuvel: "We are currently developing an application that makes it possible to diagnose developmental hip dysplasia in newborns. Newborns with suspected hip dysplasia are currently referred to the hospital for an ultrasound. Five out of six ultrasounds prove that no hip dysplasia is present, so it would be much more convenient for parents and newborns if the ultrasound could be made at the child health centre. This could also reduce health-care costs." The researchers also want to make it possible for general practitioners to detect all kind of diseases with this device, for example abdominal aortic aneurysms.

Van den Heuvel receives 50,000 euros for his research.

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Pauline Dekhuijzen

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