Not “Just” an Engineer

Innovating at the intersection of global health and technology

Emily Wang and Debbie Theobald with the CliniPAK in the International Medical Corps’ Ebola Treatment Unit in Sierra Leone (Lunsar).

By Emily Wang

In countries where infrastructure challenges create barriers to access and quality of healthcare, technologies commonly used in the developed world cannot be implemented as they are — they need to be re-imagined to suit the needs of patients and health care professionals in these wholly different contexts.

Global Health Corps (GHC) believes that great ideas don’t change the world, great people do; and are mobilizing problem solvers from many different sectors to create a new health equity paradigm. The need for developers, IT specialists, and database managers is enormous.

I served as a Global Health Corps fellow in Malawi from 2011–2012 and am now working at Vecna Cares. We create software and hardware solutions for electronic health records (EHR’s) in underserved settings. CliniPAK, a solar powered portable server, allows organizations to deploy networked technology solutions to poor infrastructure areas. After implementing EHR’s in Malawi and Kenya, and now supporting our projects in Nigeria, Haiti, and West Africa from our Cambridge office, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned:

Working in tech in global health means you’re not “just” an engineer.

By starting my career in global health, I’ve had responsibilities spanning from database management to hardware development to building professional development programs. My work is integrally tied to the end user and the environment where the technology is used, and I get to see the immediate impact of my work.

Technology can change healthcare outcomes.

The recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa challenged Vecna Cares to develop a customized Ebola workflow to track patients in Ebola Treatment Units in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Patient records can’t be transferred from the red zone where patients are to the green zone where activities like round planning occur. Having an electronic system that is easy enough to be used in personal protective equipment (PPE) and can share data across zones circumvents practices like shouting patient information over a fence or dousing records in chlorine.

These are green pastures for innovation.

I feel privileged to be part of the conversation as countries like Kenya and Nigeria think about how to tackle issues of interoperability and more reliable patient identification. Some of these solutions are technical (e.g., biometrics), while others are operational (e.g., training). Tack on additional challenges like poor electrification or low bandwidth and you have the perfect storm for innovative solutions.

We believe that technology has the power to change the face of global health, and is one of the keys to achieving health equity in our lifetime.

Emily Wang was a 2010–2011 Global Health Corps fellow at Dignitas International in Malawi.. All GHC fellows, partners and supporters are united in a common belief: health is a human right. There is a role for everyone in the movement for health equity. Join the movement today.

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