Conversation with Swati Shah, Fetal Life, LLC

Closing the Gap in Obstetrical Care Access Through Technology

NIMHD’s Conversations with Researchers Innovating to Promote Health Equity

May is Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. As we celebrate the significant contributions to America—from its history through present day—by people who represent Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities, we recognize researchers who are promoting health equity through their work funded through NIMHD’s Small Business Innovation Research/Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) Program.

Meet Swati Shah, principal investigator in minority health and health disparities research.

Swati Shah

Swati Shah currently serves as the Chief Financial Officer and a managing member of My Salt and Sugar, LLC, where she manages the finances, vendor relationships, and marketing. In the past, she’s acted as CFO and Managing Member of Fetal Life, LLC, helping lead the company in submitting patents, raising funding, developing a marketing strategy and leading the products through the FDA filing process.

She’s also acted as primary investigator for Fetal Life’s Phase I and Phase II NIMHD SBIR/STTR grants, focused on the development of portable fetal monitoring smart-devices and software to improve fetal outcomes, particularly in rural communities where access to obstetrical services is often more limited than in metropolitan areas.

Ms. Shah has grown the Fetal Life, LLC, company from ground zero to a $10 million valuation.

In addition, Ms. Shah has consulted with several biomedical and healthcare companies, such as Diabetes Life Coach, Nugeni, and others.

Ms. Shah earned her Bachelor’s degree in economics and commerce from Mumbai University.

Q&A with Swati Shah

What is your research goal, purpose and aim?
My NIMHD-funded study focuses on building the myFetalTronics device . This is an affordable, portable and easy to use device that allows a user to measure contractions and fetal heart rate at home and share this information remotely to a healthcare provider. We believe this device will address issues related to obstetrical care access by allowing pregnant women to receive care in the comfort of their homes.

Current contraction and cardiotocography devices in clinical use are large and expensive, while at home devices used by untrained professionals cannot be used to make clinical decisions. There is currently no technology that is small and low-cost enough to assess contractions and fetal heart rate for use at home that can also send data directly to remote OB/GYNs.

Fetal Life’s main innovation, the myFetalTronics device, is an affordable and portable device that can measure fetal heart rate and uterine contractions and use a hub to send these two sets of data simultaneously to remote OB/GYNs. myFetalTronics will impact perinatal care in rural and low-resource communities by connecting pregnant mothers with OB/GYNs to make important clinical decisions, saving money and time, while potentially improving outcomes.

How is your work advancing the science and health of populations experiencing disparities? Are you seeing specific changes in particular communities or groups?
Unfortunately, when considering pregnancies among minority populations, especially the African American community, health disparities are massive. Many underprivileged women are oftentimes high-risk pregnancy patients with conditions like preeclampsia and preterm birth. There exists a pressing need for devices like myFetalTronics in order to measure contractions and fetal heart rate remotely while also improving access to health care.

The work my team and I are doing as part of the NIMHD grant will help bridge access to care challenges to improve pregnancy outcomes. The device is also more affordable than current devices on the market, which will address health equity disparities by giving populations with fewer socioeconomic resources a more cost-effective way to monitor their health and receive care.

From the research you are doing, what has surprised you about the discoveries from your work and its impact?
As part of the NIH Phase I research, we performed a usability study and were proud to see that our device was validated with favorable statistics. However, what made me even prouder was to see that society was ready and actively willing to adopt such devices. In recent years, technology has become vital to everyday routine; technology also possesses the power to bridge the health disparities gap and help more communities access the care they need. Most pregnancies occur in women in their twenties, many of whom have grown up in a technologically driven era; thus, many women are excited and open to using pregnancy apps and devices to help monitor their health. The usability research also showed that the GenX population is ready to adopt new medical devices, and their technological literacy makes using devices at home easier.

In addition, during the bench testing of the contraction monitoring component of the device, results showed that this device can be used to measure the contractions of pregnant women who have a relatively high BMI. The data studied by Blue Cross Blue Shield for racial and ethnic disparities in maternal health showed that 61% of pregnant African American women have a BMI greater than 40. The myFetalTronics device is well suited for this population, being designed and developed while taking into consideration the needs of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

What inspired you to become a researcher in minority health and health disparities?
As a minority woman myself and as someone who faced health and financial complications during my pregnancy, I’m incredibly passionate about supporting women’s health and helping provide adequate maternal health care, especially to those who struggle to receive timely care and resources.

Underserved communities, including racial and ethnic minority communities and underserved rural communities, have limited access to high quality obstetrical care. Several barriers limit this access. For example, 54% of United States counties lack any practicing OB/GYN. This especially affects pregnant women in rural communities due to the increasing number of hospital closures since 2010. Only 46% of rural hospitals provide labor and delivery services. As a result, 50% of rural women live more than 30 minutes away from a hospital with OB/GYN services. In rural areas of developing countries, this shortage of access is even more pronounced. In India’s most populous state, for instance, less than 50% of pregnant women had sought any care during their entire pregnancy.

Mothers from racial and ethnic minority communities, especially African American mothers, also disproportionately experience high-risk pregnancies, resulting in an increased number of pregnancy complications, preterm births, and NICU admissions. Research suggests that adequate prenatal care may reduce potentially avoidable maternity complications.

How do we encourage the next generation of scientists?
The next generation of scientists must be encouraged through mentorship, coaching, and education in health equity research. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it increasingly vital for upcoming generations to mitigate the disparities that currently exist.

As the Managing Member of Fetal Life and someone with a passion for empowering others, I enjoy motivating young children to innovate. I aim to inspire this mentality within my team, encouraging them to participate in different programs to reach students and young minds. My team spoke at an intellectual property workshop hosted by the USPTO and Congressional App Challenge for middle schoolers and to MBA students at the University of Louisville. I’ve also personally attended several events, such as the NNCI Additive Manufacturing Summit, to spread awareness about the importance of innovation.

I also encourage my team to participate in different research and development competitions. These have included Johnson & Johnson Maternal Health QuickFire Challenge and the Parkview Health Healthy Mom and Baby Innovation Competition. Participating in these efforts helps create a company culture focused on research and development and spreads awareness about Fetal Life’s work to improve maternal health outcomes, especially for rural, underserved, and high-risk populations.

What do you envision as the future of minority health and health disparities research?
Society needs innovative solutions that can lower healthcare costs and promote health equity. I believe minority health and health disparities research needs to address the social determinants of health. This requires an examination of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic conditions, and other factors that may impact an individual’s ability to receive adequate health care.

To address challenges that are associated with such factors, research and innovation will play a key role, especially through technology. With tools that promote telehealth and remote care, access to care can be improved and health disparities can be reduced. The pandemic has fueled the need for remote care, and I believe telehealth will become even more widely adopted in the future. Leveraging artificial intelligence can also be a part of the future of health care and can aid with health risk stratification. Overall, I envision technology and research working hand-in-hand to provide more holistic and inclusive healthcare resources.

Page updated May 18, 2023