© Fulvio Bugani
25 Oct 18
Pete MastersPete MastersBritishMedical Innovation AdviserUnited Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

From biofuel to virtual reality: Four innovative new projects from MSF

The Sapling Nursery is a special fund that supports MSF staff to develop and test new ideas which we hope will improve the care we provide to our patients. The fund has just closed its fifth call for proposals, so I wanted to let you know about four more innovative projects that have been funded.

These four projects were chosen from 12 proposals and it was a difficult decision as the quality was, once again, very high.

I hope you enjoy reading about them here and promise to keep you updated as they get started in their first phase of development.

1) DIY oxygen tech

Medical grade oxygen is a vital part of treatment for some of the most critically ill patients in our care – particularly newborn babies. The need is growing, and with that MSF biomedical technicians face greater challenges keeping on top of supplies and ensuring machines are well maintained.

One biomed, working in a hospital in war-torn Yemen, will be taking a DIY electronics approach to meeting this challenge by automating certain aspects of the process.

Firstly, he will build an alarm that will alert staff when a patient’s oxygen supply is getting low, meaning a more reliable and efficient changeover of oxygen bottles.

Secondly, he will develop a smart tracking system, connected to the oxygen concentrator, that monitors and records key statistics such as O2 percentage.  

The information from the tracker will be visualised on a dashboard via a local network. This means that data from all 36 devices he manages will be available in real time, so he can take action exactly when it is needed, reducing the risk to patients of gaps in supply and keeping these life-saving devices well maintained.

2) A virtual emergency room for enhanced triage training

The Emergency Triage Assessment and Treatment course (ETAT) is a life-saving training that teaches staff to triage sick children in acute emergencies and to provide immediate treatment.

MSF runs this course regularly, but participants have highlighted concerns about their ability to keep the skills and knowledge they learn fresh and ready to be deployed when the need arises. In these situations, rapid decisions need to be made for immediate treatment and there is no time for a quick memory refresh. You cannot ‘practice’ on real sick children and training dummies are lifeless and unrealistic.

So, this team has proposed the use a virtual environment to facilitate ETAT practice, immersing users in realistic and interactive scenarios. This will help staff to internalise the skills and knowledge taught on the course and prepare them for the day when these skills are needed in a hurry.

Virtual reality is not new, but has previously relied on expensive equipment and / or a strong internet connection. Standalone virtual reality goggles mean that once an environment is loaded, there is no need for any internet capacity. Recent developments have seen these drop to a price that is feasible in the settings where MSF works.

3) R for Epis

As MSF responds to outbreaks and epidemics, it is the job of our epidemiologists (or “epis”) to make sense of the medical data and guide the way we work. There is a plethora of tools available to epis and as data analysis continues to become an ever more important part of our response capacity, our teams have probably tried them all!

What this has led to is an ad-hoc approach to analysis where different epis are relying on different software and methods to get that vital information. This incoherence can lead to a slower and less efficient response, and it also means that analyses are hard to combine and compare across outbreaks. This decreases opportunities for research and learning that could help us save more lives in future.

The R for Epis team have come up with a project that builds on the efforts made by the RECON consortium, using a collaborative, community approach to developing a library of standard, context-specific analysis tools, built on an open source software called “R”. These tools will increase the speed and efficiency of MSF analyses, improving our response to disease outbreaks, and helping us to save lives. They will also be made available to others to use, improve and adapt.

4) Testing bio gas as a power source for MSF

Electricity can help save lives. From keeping the lights on during a surgery to powering the fridges that keep medications cool and effective, electricity is key. But many of the areas where MSF works don’t have dependable mains electricity, and our teams must rely on supplies of fuels such as diesel to power hospital generators.

As MSF continues to work on diversifying the energy sources that power our hospitals and health centres, this team from Democratic Republic of Congo plan to test the recycling of fecal matter into an energy source.

Using a combination of organic waste produced by patients and staff in the hospital, and dung from local cattle herds, they will run a feasibility study to determine whether this alternative fuel source can replace other, less sustainable options.

If proved feasible, the team then plan to move onto design and testing, sharing what they learn to increase the pool of knowledge within MSF and externally.

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