Training Biomedical Engineers for Humanitarian Emergencies

Training Biomedical Engineers for Humanitarian Emergencies

Training Biomedical Engineers for Humanitarian Emergencies 789 444 IEEE Pulse
Author(s): Muhammad H. Zaman

Humanitarian emergencies, catalyzed in part by increased armed conflicts in many parts of the world, have resulted in the precious loss of life and strained or destroyed local health systems that are no longer capable of providing care to those who desperately need it [1]. At the same time, millions of people remain in refugee camps, slums, and informal settlements for decades with limited provisions for adequate and quality care. In addition to existing health challenges, these complex emergencies provide a fertile environment for the emergence of new pathogens that can impact communities and countries all around the world. For humanitarian emergencies and protracted crises, the need for terrain ready and robust diagnostics cannot be underestimated. At the same time, context-appropriate tools to diagnose and manage chronic diseases are also badly needed. Humanitarian agencies, working in these at-risk communities, are often in need of not just cash and medical supplies, but also require trained professionals [2] who are comfortable with technology, can innovate, and guide and train others in appropriate use of technology.

New and protracted humanitarian crises have created an endless demand for engineers and technologists who are both willing and capable of working to alleviate the suffering of those who are displaced from their homes. While the demand side of this equation is strong, the supply side remains weak [3]. This is, in part, due to limited training opportunities for engineers, who despite having a strong desire to help and comfort others, are provided little training opportunities to work or support humanitarian efforts around the world. In general, there are few courses in engineering curricula that focus on global health, and even fewer that would train students for possible opportunities to engage with humanitarian agencies.

To bridge some of the gulf, I propose a three-pronged strategy. Here, I recognize that offering new courses in any engineering department is challenging and requires resources that may or may not be available. I also understand that not all students will be interested in learning more about humanitarian emergencies or protracted refugee crises, and those who may be interested may not be able to get a chance to travel or interact with those with a lived experience during their training.

That said, there is a growing subset of students who would be interested in learning more, or at least being made aware of how engineering approaches, technology development, or implementation [4] could improve the lives of those who are forcibly displaced. Here, my proposal builds on what already exists within most engineering training programs and supplements it with contextual information that may improve training of aspiring engineers.

First, most BME programs across the country require design electives and a capstone design program. These courses are considered as integral parts of the training, and alumni often talk about the value of these courses in their subsequent careers. The goal of these courses is to expose the students to real-world challenges that can benefit from the perspective of an engineer. Complex humanitarian emergencies would not only increase awareness about the difficulties faced by our fellow humans but will also allow students to think about design in an unstable, unpredictable, and resource-constrained environment. This will improve their training and global awareness regardless of where they choose to work after their training. However, I recognize that not all departments have faculty who have experience working in these kinds of environments. Therefore, we first need to create an open-access series of lectures, examples, and exercises as resources for instructors that can be adapted for particular courses. There are already some efforts [5] to create such resources. This effort needs to be supported and scaled to anyone who may be interested in benefitting from it.

Second, design courses are best executed when there is a hands-on component that give students an opportunity to design, prototype, and build devices that work in a particular environment. Recognizing that students may not have the opportunity to test their devices in a realistic scenario, the environment is often “simulated” in the lab or a design classroom. There is a long history and tradition in engineering design courses to simulate the real world, or at least a real-world-like environment. Similar simulations that reflect some of the complexity of humanitarian emergencies can increase both awareness and understanding of engineering students. With the availability of affordable kits and systems like Arduino, mobile phone accessories, cameras, and sensors, there are new opportunity to design and prototype diagnostic devices that can work in complex terrains and emergencies. This approach is already being tried in some engineering programs [6]. What is needed is a bigger open-access repository of a few examples of how these could be put together. Creating that open-access repository is well within our reach.

Third, we need to create avenues for mutual learning and engagement. Such avenues will provide opportunities for students from one institution to learn from those in another. Online learning communities, Zoom meetings, and other opportunities to engage can create rich learning communities. Similarly, in my own experience, I have appreciated that there are plenty of practitioners, researchers, scientists, engineers, and policy officials with lived experience to provide guidance and input to students who are interested in developing a better understanding of the challenges faced by forcibly displaced persons.

There is also the opportunity for students in high-income countries to engage with, and learn from, students, faculty, staff, and researchers in low- and middle-income countries that have both the contextual understanding and experience in developing context appropriate solutions for complex humanitarian emergencies. Several universities already have programs that focus on humanitarian engineering [7]. My students and I have had the pleasure of participating and engaging in some of these efforts in the past [8]. Engagement with existing programs and growth in new areas is an untapped opportunity. A bidirectional learning mechanism where students get to interact with, and learn from, their peers in other parts of the world will not only increase the intellectual richness of design programs, but will also allow for learnings and perspectives that go beyond the classroom. At the same time, these efforts can also lead to creation of customized programs for codevelopment of local talent that can address some of the workforce needs of the humanitarian agencies in delivering and improving adequate and quality health care.

My experience working with partners on the ground in humanitarian emergencies and protracted crises in Africa, Middle East, South Asia, and Latin America has taught me that there is an urgent need for more engineers and technology professionals to contribute their skills in technology design, improvement, adaptation, and implementation. Driven by increased global awareness, social media, and a sense of global solidarity, there is also an increased desire among engineering students to meaningfully contribute toward increasing health care access among those who are impacted by conflict and persecution. What is missing is the connection between the two: an avenue that connects the strong passion with the urgent need. Rigorous training that builds on creativity, innovation, quantitative analysis, quality control, and self-reflection can create that bridge. We have the intellectual tools to start building that bridge. We need that bridge today more than ever before.


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