In the past, global health work tended to be limited to doctors, nurses and other health care professionals. But engineering plays a role in health care around the world. From infrastructure projects, to supporting medical equipment, engineers are becoming an essential part of the global health landscape.
Now more engineering students are getting involved, thanks to a local volunteer organization. And some local students have found creative ways to improve healthcare overseas while creating a viable career choice for themselves.
Cheap electronics are changing the world – even in poor countries. In Africa, governments or a private companies are erecting cell phone towers. Now, many developing countries have more cell coverage than the U S.
The effect of this was brought home for James Molini last summer, traveling in a local-style taxi across northern Tanzania.
"We were picking people up at one stop… we saw an old Maasai warrior in his Maasai warrior garb," Molini said. "And he had a tunic, he had a leather belt, he had his machete in his leather belt, and he also had a cell phone holder for his cell phone."
Molini was in Tanzania as one of 23 students scattered across the country volunteering with the Durham-based non-profit Engineering World Health.
Engineering World Health is one of a handful of small non-governmental organizations that have emerged in the past few years to encourage Western engineers to share their knowledge and expertise in the developing world. Melissa Beard directs the program.
"The point of Engineering World Health is really to inspire and mobilize the biomedical engineering community," Beard says. "And to demonstrate the impact that appropriate medical equipment can have in the developing world."
EWH was inspired by a sabbatical Duke professor Bob Malkin took overseas in the 80s. During his time away, he saw that people had color TVs and VCRs, but they no access to decent health care. Malkin is a biomedical engineer. He saw that part of the problem with health care had to do with electronic equipment that didn’t fit the setting. Maybe the machines have the wrong voltage, or they’re too expensive to maintain. For example, Malkin describes a seemingly simple device to treat babies with jaundice using blue light.
"The lightbulbs in the device only last about six months," Malkin says. "They cost about $300 for the lightbulbs, they are specialty lightbulbs. Now, in the hospital across the street, in Duke, they just replace them every four or five months. It's $300 every few months, it's not a big deal. In the developing world, that's a huge amount of money."
So, at Duke, Malkin started classes and an engineering lab to study technology that’s appropriate to health care in the developing world. And students have flooded his program.
"I actually find this current generation of undergraduates, anyway, absolutely driven by service," Malkin says. "They want to serve, so we get far more applicants than what we can take."
About a decade ago, Malkin started bringing students abroad for the summer to work on medical equipment in developing world hospitals. That program evolved into Engineering World Health. Right now, dozens of engineering students are in Tanzania and Central America repairing medical equipment in rural hospitals.
Adam Kurzrok is a mechanical engineering student at Duke. He was one of 23 who went to Tanzania last summer. He says after a crash course in electronics repair, he and the others were sent to rural hospitals to fix what they could
"We worked on some computers that were broken," Kurzrok says. "We worked on autoclaves, which are sterilizers, suction pumps, a lot of lamps, surgical lamps, as well as an x-ray machines and an ultrasound machine."
Kurzrok says much of the equipment at these hospitals had been cast aside. He says at first, the Tanzanians were skeptical college kids could repair the complicated electronics. But the E-W-H kids had been provided with tools and they’d grown up around complicated electronics and understand them.
"Once we fixed some, and we showed them that what we are capable of doing, a lot of members of the staff started bringing in their own materials from their home...one person even brought us their TV for us to try to fix," he says.
Kurzrok and the others quickly learned why there were so many broken electronic devices – the unreliable power supply, both blackouts and fluctuations in current. And that has consequences.
Film Voiceover: Their life hangs in the balance, not because of a device malfunction or a health complication… but a power outage.
That’s James Molini the student from the beginning of this story, narrating a video about what he saw in Tanzania.
"So we saw many hospitals that had power outages in the middle of the day," Molini says. "Some of our friends saw surgeries that ended because the power went out in the middle of the surgery."
Molini says there were backup generators at the hospitals, but the gas to run them was too expensive.
So, Molini, Kurzrok, and some other volunteers started talking about some way to support medical devices during blackouts. Commercial back-up power supplies already exist, but they’re expensive. So the group came up with an idea to create a low cost one.
sound of the faint whirr of the fan.
They call it the cell saver.
"Here we have our charging circuit, which is our custom design," Molini says.
That charging circuit is a yellow plastic circuit board, about 3 inches square
"And that’s going to interface the 12 Volt lead acid battery with the recycled computer component," Molini says.
That’s right, recycled. Most of the pieces of the power supply have been thrown away. They use the same power supply found in most desktop computers. Costs about 5 bucks new… maybe a dollar used.
"We’re going to use this custom charging circuit to interface the battery and the computer component and from there we gonna have a DC to AC inverter convert the power from that computer component, into something that you can plug into and have this device function as your backup power supply."
And there’s the device. Only two new parts needed, the rest can be found locally. They plan on selling it for about 10-12 bucks. And the battery???
"The battery is going to be refurbished from say, an old car, a lot of these we found in Tanzania to be lying in the side of the road, there are in old motorcycles… So not only will this device meet a need for communities that experience energy poverty, but also provide a solution to the pollution problems that lead acid batteries could cause."
Molini, Kurzrok and 2 other guys entered the device into the annual Dell Social Innovation Prize competition. Out of more than 700 entries, they won the second prize worth ten thousand dollars. It was the only entry that relied on recycled materials. They’re using their prize money to start a business making the cell savers. Melissa Beard from Engineering World Health says this what the program is designed for.
"I know it's something that sticks with them for a lifetime," Beard says. "I spoke with one a few days ago who says it's still the best thing he’s ever done. So I really think one of the indirect accomplishments that we’ve had is to turning our students into really great global citizens."