‘Techies’ help millions globally access better healthcare

12 September 2022
Manoj A. Thomas has received the Fulbright Global Scholar Award for his work

From Haiti to Myanmar, Associate Professor Manoj A. Thomas of the University of Sydney Business School has improved healthcare access for millions around the world - and now his sights are set on Oceania.

Associate Professor Manoj Thomas

A passion for emerging technologies, data science and social development has seen Manoj A. Thomas impact millions of lives around the world through the innovative use of low-cost technologies to improve healthcare education.

So impactful is his work that he has been awarded the prestigious Fulbright Global Scholar Award to support his international mission.

Thomas, an Associate Professor of Business Information Systems at the University of Sydney Business School, has travelled the world delivering a broad range of social development projects through his background in data science and emerging technologies.

I did information and communications technology work in Haiti, worked on data management for the Botswana AIDS project, developed technologies for reporting and tracking of reproductive health issues among Myanmar refugees in India, and saw the desperate need everywhere for contextually affordable technologies to address societal challenges.
Associate Professor Manoj Thomas

“The other thing I consistently noted was that businesses and developmental agencies were far ahead of the government in adopting new technologies to address the needs of communities.”

This led to him co-founding the non-profit Techies Without Borders to support his current initiative: Continuing Medical Education on Stick (CMES), an innovative way to provide healthcare practitioners access to the latest medical research and education.

CMES is now used by over 4,200 medical practitioners in 16 countries, serving a patient population base of around 8-10 million people.

COVID and costs: Overcoming the biggest challenges

CMES is so named because it was originally delivered on thumb drives or ‘sticks’, but the team has increasingly turned its attention to using small, cheap Raspberry Pi computers to store the information – which can be easily and remotely accessed via smart phone.

“Doctors liked the thumb drives, but the feedback was they weren’t effective in the field as they required access to a computer to use them, so that’s how we came up with using the Raspberry Pis as a solution,” said Associate Professor Thomas.

“The doctors no longer need access to a computer at the patient’s bedside; they can just pull out their phone and access information instantly. The thumb drives are still used in very remote areas where the Pi is not a practical option.

“CMES comes with over six years’ worth of the most up-to-date content provided by Emergency Medicine Reviews and Perspectives, and the Raspberry Pi is always looking for an internet connection to download new content.”

The team’s preference is to send two people to each site to implement CMES at clinics and hospitals, provide initial hands-on training, and conduct data collection for research. This has been hampered in recent years by pandemic-induced travel restrictions.

Ongoing global supply chain issues continue to restrict the team’s expansion efforts due to a Raspberry Pi shortage, but the largest barrier remains funding.

“COVID was a big challenge but also a big opportunity as healthcare professionals around the world scrambled for the latest information and treatment advice. In many remote and rural clinics, the CMES platform served as a one-stop gateway for doctors to stay current with COVID management protocols. I’m very happy with our achievements through this time,” said Associate Professor Thomas.

“We keep growing and CMES has gone from country to country by word of mouth, but we simply don’t have the human resources or financial capital to meet the scalability challenges. Most of our money goes to site visits and cloud-based technology costs that power the CMES platform.”

Papua New Guinea and beyond

Associate Professor Thomas said that his team undertakes a strong vetting process to ensure interested countries have a need for CMES, and that there is support from institutional leaders and policy makers to use and take ownership of the technology.

Doctors in Solomon Islands, Cook Islands and Tuvalu have access to CMES thumb drives. Associate Professor Thomas visited Samoa and Fiji in 2019, then Papua New Guinea this year to implement Raspberry Pis and provide training.

He will concentrate his efforts on Africa and South America until 2024 as part of the Fulbright award commitment.

“Oceania surprised us with its readiness. I’m amazed with the welcome and ease of rollout we’ve experienced here.

“I’m proud to be working at a political level with ministries of health internationally. Papua New Guinea is a model we’d like to see for the rest of Oceania, and we’re looking forward to the upcoming rollout in East Timor later in the year.”