The circular stairs of the Business School, with sections of wood panelling and skylight.

Low-cost tech program supports healthcare in Africa

13 June 2024
Helping health workers access latest advancements
A program to sustainably deliver medical education in three African countries is proving to be a hit among doctors thanks to low-cost technologies and student volunteers.

Associate Professor Manoj Thomas, a researcher in the Business School, is pioneering the use of innovative low-cost technology to enable health professionals in resource-poor regions of the world to stay up to date with medical advances.

With funding from the University’s International Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Collaboration program, Dr Thomas recently spent two months in Africa, taking his CMES (Continuing Medical Education on Stick) project to hospitals and clinics in Uganda, The Gambia, and Nigeria.

My dream is to extend CMES to every doctor in the country.
Dr Abubacarr Jagne, Medical Director of the Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital, The Gambia

“CMES enables doctors, nurses and health professionals to maintain competence and give patients the best possible care, even in areas with limited internet and disrupted electricity,” said Dr Thomas.

The initiative delivers free information to health practitioners in the form of PDFs and audio files via tiny raspberry-pi computers and auto-running USB drives. Content is updated monthly and the system is designed to be low-cost and easy to use.

Photograph of a raspberry-pi device and its user manual

One of CMES' raspberry-pi devices. Image supplied by Dr Manoj Thomas.

Dr Thomas said: “I’m proud to say that all underlying technologies driving CMES have been developed one hundred percent by volunteer students – both undergraduate and postgraduate students – who were inspired to join the cause.”

In Uganda, he has introduced CMES at Jinja and Masaka Regional Referral Hospitals, Makerere University Hospital, and Busesa Hope Children’s Clinic serving a cumulative patient population base of approximately 6 million people.

In The Gambia, the technology is being used at Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital, the biggest and only tertiary hospital in the country, serving the country’s entire population of 2.64 million through referrals from primary and secondary care providers.

“The complexity of orchestrating the transfer of technology, end-user training, and transportation logistics is formidable in low resource settings,” he said. “But the effort is worthwhile when it makes a difference and has a positive impact on the populations.”

Dr Abubacarr Jagne, Medical Director of the Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital, is a strong advocate for the success of the program.

 “My dream is to extend CMES to every doctor in the country,” Dr Jagne said.

Dr Thomas is an Associate Professor of Business Information Systems in the Business School. Prior to his visit to Africa, the team has rolled out the CMES initiative at sites in 15 countries including many island nations around Oceania. He received almost $150,000 for the project in 2022 from the International SDG Collaboration Program, part of the University’s Sustainability Strategy.

Photo of CMES USB devices all plugged in to a glowing hub.

CMES' auto-running USB devices. Image supplied by Dr Manoj Thomas.

He also received a Fulbright Global Scholar Fellowship to continue his work in Africa, where he was joined by Dr Jessica Pelletier, Emergency Medicine Education Fellow at Washington University in St Louis, United States. Dr Thomas is the Co-founder and President of Techies without Borders (TWB), a global non-profit organisation that aims to harness the power of technology for education and healthcare; Dr Pelletier is TWB’s Africa coordinator.

The team also conducted extensive data collection for a multi-national study undertaken as a collaborative research initiative involving the University of Sydney and partners in the United States (Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis; University of Nevada, Las Vegas; and Claremont Graduate University, California) and Africa (Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital, The Gambia; University of Calabar, Nigeria; JUHRI, Nigeria; and, Samaritan Health Systems, Uganda).

Dr Thomas added: “We have now surpassed our volunteers’ capacities. Our next challenge is to expand the CMES technology to accommodate new CME content including HD videos and images, as well as the use of language models to enhance knowledge retrieval. This will require hiring IT experts.”

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