From biofuel to virtual reality: Four innovative new projects from Doctors Without Borders

How can we use technology to save more lives? Pete blogs about the latest Doctors Without Borders projects aiming to do just that...

The "Sapling Nursery" is a special fund that supports Médecins sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (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


A patient in an MSF hospital in Gaza receives oxygen

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 technician, working in a hospital in Yemen, will be using his electronics skills to meet this challenge by automating aspects of the process.

Firstly, he will build an alarm that will alert staff when a patient’s oxygen supply is getting low.

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 display on a dashboard via a local network. This means that data from all 36 of the oxygen concentrators he manages will be available in real time, making it easier to ensure a constant supply for patients and to keep these life-saving devices well maintained.

This is not MSF's first innovation project focused on oxygen – you can read about Per-Erik’s solar-powered oxygen project here.


2) A virtual emergency room for enhanced triage training


An MSF staff member tries the virtual reality experience of Cantahay hospital.
A member of the MSF team tries out virtual reality for a 2016 hospital design project

In an emergency, the ability to assess which patients are sickest and need to be seen first is a vital skill, known as triage. The Emergency Triage Assessment and Treatment course (ETAT) is a life-saving training that teaches staff to triage sick children 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 an acute emergency 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 ‘practise’ 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 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 now 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) Testing bio gas as a power source for MSF


MSF staff use electric light to see a baby's injuries
Treating a child in Bria, Central African Republic, 2016

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.


4) R for Epis


An MSF epidemiologist and health promoter look at a laptop together
An MSF field epidemiologist and health promotion supervisor in Kirkuk, Iraq, look at recent epidemiological trends

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.

Combining and comparing analyses across outbreaks is an important part of the research and learning that can help us save more lives in future, but this is made harder when epis are using different systems.

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.


Interested in collaborating in one of these projects? Click here to get in touch with the team.