dukengineer | 2012-2013

Engineering World Health

EWH participant Savanah Carson with her new friends in Ngarisi, Tanzania
Engineering World Health, the brainchild of Duke’s very own Professor Robert Malkin, is an international organization whose main goal is to solve ongoing healthcare problems in the developing world through resourceful design. EWH, as it is known, has chapters in many universities across the globe. Duke’s EWH chapter is a student organization unlike any other, integrating creative engineering and problem-solving with a global humanitarian mission.

Oftentimes in the developing world, hospitals and clinics utilize donated medical equipment. When parts of these machines fail, spares are incredibly expensive and difficult to find, resulting in neglect and disuse of these necessary devices. To remedy this problem, EWH set up one of its most popular ongoing programs: the Summer Institute. Accepted students are given the opportunity to travel to hospitals and clinics in either Nicaragua or Tanzania after a month of technical training and language preparation. These volunteers then help local hospital technicians make simple, resourceful repairs to worn-out or broken equipment. At Duke, this program is subsidized through Duke Engage, so students are able to take part in this experience free of cost.

One of the main activities Duke EWH participates in is a yearly design competition that addresses a predominant medical challenge in the developing world. Generally, the topics of each year’s competition are determined by a needs assessment conducted by EWH headquarters. Individual chapters are then asked to come up with unique solutions to these particular issues. This year, the two projects are the development of an x-ray intensity meter and the invention of a universal surgical light bulb adaptor, headed by sophomores Tiffany Dong and Elder Yoshida respectively.

Engineering World Health participants conducting an inventory in Leon, Nicaragua
However, Duke EWH is more than just the annual design competition. Club members also participate in regularly scheduled kit builds throughout the semester. During a kit build, club members follow step-by-step instructions to create small, biomedical devices that can then be shipped to the developing world. Thus, students are learn basic circuitry skills, like how to solder, how to use a breadboard, etc., and are given the chance apply those skills in a meaningful way outside of a classroom setting.

This semester, Duke EWH is working on creating electrosurgery unit testers. Many modern-day medical operations utilize electrosurgical techniques in which a high current density can be manipulated to cut and coagulate tissue. The electrosurgery units (ESU) used to execute these procedures are incredibly expensive, and many developing world hospitals rely on donated ESUs. However, these donated units may be defective, posing a hazard to the patient and physician. ESU testers help calibrate these instruments, thus maintaining device utility without compromising the welfare of the patient.

This year, the Duke chapter is undertaking a new program of their own. Current EWH president Evan Seidel explained that the chapter wants to set up another trip abroad, separate from the Summer Institute. Students would travel to Xela, Guatemala and conduct a needs assessment at local clinics and hospitals. They could then help with repair work, much like volunteers who participate in the Summer Institute. However, students might also be able to directly implement the working prototypes of current chapter projects. Eventually, Seidel explained, the trips to Xela might become a part of the Summer Institute.

Additionally, the Duke chapter wants to branch out to doing “teardowns.” Members would be able to take apart old, broken equipment to better understand how to make repairs and possibly improve future models.

After its founding in 2001, Engineering World Health has strived to improve the quality of healthcare in the developing world. Through kit builds, participation in the Summer Institute programs, and involvement in the annual design competition, members of Duke EWH have been able to use creative engineering to make a lasting impact in the world.

Visakha Suresh is a junior double-majoring in biomedical engineering and biology.