MIT PhD student devises of new prosthetics care model in Sierra Leone

War and illness have left up to 40,000 citizens with a need for prosthetics.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Riccio-Ackerman and a technician inspect a prosthesis in Sierra Leone.jpg
Riccio-Ackerman and a technician inspect a prosthesis in Sierra Leone.

MIT/Adikalie Kamara 

It is currently estimated that up to 40,000 people in Sierra Leone require orthotics and prosthetics services but don’t have access to them. Currently, the nation boasts only one fully certified prosthetist available for all patients when the ideal number should be one for every 250, according to the World Health Organization and the International Society of Orthotics and Prosthetics.

This is what Francesca Riccio-Ackerman, a biomedical engineer and MIT PhD student studying health equity and health systems, is trying to change, according to a report published by MIT on Sunday.

“We’re really focused on improving and augmenting human mobility,” said Riccio-Ackerman. “People with amputation need low-level, consistent care for years. There really needs to be a long-term investment in improving this.”

Through the Yang Center and supported by a fellowship from the new MIT Morningside Academy for Design, Riccio-Ackerman is developing a sustainable care and delivery model in Sierra Leone for prosthetics.

“[We’re working] to improve access to orthotic and prosthetic services,” she explained.

In January 2023, her team launched a four-year collaboration with the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health and Sanitation that hopes to enable Sierra Leoneans to obtain professional prosthetics training. This would empower them to care for their own communities.

Forging ahead

“We’re forging ahead in Sierra Leone and thinking about translating our strategy and methodologies to other communities around the globe that could benefit,” she said. “We hope to be able to do this in many, many countries in the future.”

Riccio-Ackerman’s passion for human mobility was first picked by witnessing her aunt suffer from rheumatoid arthritis. “My aunt was young, but she looked like she was 80 or 90. She was sick, in pain, in a wheelchair— a young spirit in an old body,” she said.

Riccio-Ackerman also was privy to clinical trials for t-enabled myoelectric arms controlled by nerves in the body. At the time, she said she felt saddened to often have to explain to patients who participated in testing that they couldn’t take the devices home and that they may never be covered by insurance.

According to MIT, Riccio-Ackerman then began asking the questions that would fuel her later work: “What factors determine who gets an amputation? Why are we making devices that are so expensive and inaccessible?” Today, the student is finally doing something to make a difference.

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