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Electrical Engineering Students Advance Telemedicine in Waslala

Six months after installing a prototype text message-based system to improve health communication in Waslala, Nicaragua, a group of students and faculty from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, the Villanova College of Nursing, and the Villanova School of Business returned to the region to take their novel “telemedicine” initiative one step further over Spring Break. This time, they focused on helping the system run more effectively and efficiently.

For more than a year, this interdisciplinary team, led by Dr. Pritpal Singh, Professor and Chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, has been developing a solution to help better connect residents of the remote villages of Waslala with the closest hospital, which in some cases may be a day’s journey away, in order to improve patient care.

The system requires both a technological and a human and component for success. The text messaging system runs on locally-based cell phones, a server connection, and reliable Internet service for data transmission. Local community health workers, trained by Villanova nursing students, use the system to communicate data or questions about patient conditions to hospital staff, who then communicate diagnoses or treatment recommendations back to the village.

On this trip, engineering students installed a solar panel, back-up power, and charger for the central computer. They also learned to problem-solve on the go, as they met and confronted obstacles over the course of 12-hour days spent adding and troubleshooting these new components to the system. Meanwhile the nursing team, led by Dr. Elizabeth Keech, Assistant Professor of Nursing, trained an additional 15 community health workers to use the new system. In addition, the business contingent explored the development of a business model to sustain the program over time.

In a stroke of small-world luck, the Waslala project team also learned that Victor Garcia MSEE ’98 currently serves as an executive at Claro, a member company of the largest wireless provider in Latin America. Garcia will help the team secure additional phones and appropriate service plans to continue and expand their telemedicine system.

The team is slated to return to Waslala in May to reinforce the health worker training that was performed in March, to upgrade the system and resolve some technical issues with the back-up power system and communications modem, and to upgrade some of the software on the computer.

Concurrently, the team also tested a solar powered headlamp, which was designed by a group of ECE students who are competing in IEEE Canada’s Humanitarian Innovation Challenge. The group was inspired by work done previously by ECE students to improve the Solar Suitcase, a portable photovoltaic system that can be used to provide reliable electricity for hospitals in developing countries, and the needs of Power Up Gambia, a non-profit organization started by Kathryn Hall when she was an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. The organization’s mission is to provide reliable electricity and water to healthcare facilities in and around Gambia through solar energy.

Students testing the text messaging system
The text messaging system runs on locally-based cell phones, a server connection, and reliable Internet service for data transmission.
Students testing the telehealth project
The telehealth project allows community health workers to communicate patient data to the area hospital more effectively.