Poor engineers. They just don’t get the respect they deserve. They’re not feeding starving children, treating HIV/AIDS, or performing heart surgery — they’re just on the front lines of enabling local doctors and nurses working in developing countries to treat all of those. And as the people of Engineering World Health could tell you, that is very powerful medicine indeed.
Quite simply, the mission of Engineering World Health is to fix medical equipment in some of the poorest places on earth. The work isn’t sexy and usually involves a lot of instruction manuals & circuit boards . But it can have a huge impact on the level of care provided to men, women and children living in poverty who often travel for hours to reach a medical clinic, only to find that no care is available because a microscope isn’t working, a refrigerator is broken, or an EKG is out of commission.
Unbelievably, nearly 80% of the medical equipment in developing countries doesn’t work. Nearly 90% of it is donated from a variety of foreign sources (some well-intentioned, some simply seeking a tax break). And a full 70% of those donations turn out to be technologically inappropriate. But needy hospitals take what they can get, and then end up with 100V equipment where 220V is the standard. Or x-ray equipment without battery backups. Or CT scanners in places that don’t have the resources to buy blood pressure cuffs. Or the problem might be merely a missing instruction manual.
Each summer, EWH sends engineering, math, science and physics students from around the world to its partner hospitals in Tanzania, Rwanda, Honduras and Nicaragua, where they use all their ingenuity and training to fix those problems –and share their expertise with local medical and maintenance personnel. The students use high-tech and no-tech methodology, because in developing countries necessity is the mother of invention. In fact, 2/3 of all out-of-service medical equipment in the developing world can be fixed for less than $50.
In Tanzania, babies in intensive care were dying of the cold because the hospital’s only incubator had a broken heater. So ingenious EWH students welded a space heater to the wall and built a special room thermometer the nurses could adjust. Another student devised ECG pads out of the plastic liners in Coke bottle caps – a sustainable, locally- sourced solution for sure! Just this year, EWH launched an annual design competition directed at producing simple, replicable prototypes of technical solutions to the health care challenges that students encounter in developing countries, using readily available materials and a lot of imagination.
Yet the ultimate solution is for developing countries to produce their own brilliant engineers. To that end, EWH is also conducting a 3-year pilot program in Rwanda to train certified biomedical equipment technicians, and place at least one in each hospital in the country. And the organization is hoping to duplicate the success of these training programs in Cambodia, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Ghana and Honduras.
To truly appreciate the value of someone who can make medical technology work, bringing better health care to some of the poorest people on the planet, listen to this positive diagnosis: 75% of all the broken, malfunctioning, or abandoned equipment EWH students touch, they repair– putting $4 million of medical technology back into the service of people who desperately need it. That really works for me!
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