Using technology in the fight against Ebola

By Joel Selanikio, M.D., special to

LUNSAR, Sierra Leone —  When I got here, I was excited to begin my time helping in the fight against the Ebola virus that has ravaged West Africa. As a physician and former CDC epidemiologist, I came to the Lunsar Ebola Treatment Center (ETC), operated by the International Medical Corps (IMC), to treat Ebola patients and help control the spread of the disease.

But I was also sent to the ETC to evaluate how technology can be used to aid doctors, nurses and other personnel here. Having co-founded Magpi, a provider of mobile data collection apps, I know technology can significantly help these efforts. Already, we know mobile data collection is going to save doctors hours per day of routine paperwork.

Being a tech-oriented guy, I’ve been taking note of many other ways, besides just mobile, in which modern technology is helping in the fight against Ebola. While we do have access to mobile phones, Internet access is intermittent, so we make the most of an array of tech tools.

Here are a few things that are really making a difference:

The mobile phone – As a public health veteran of many decades, I can tell you that the availability of inexpensive mobile phones in the hands of everyone is really making a difference in the coordination of the response. Contact tracers, community leaders, lab personnel, doctors, nurses, drivers and everyone else are all easily reachable by text and voice. In addition, we use our phone cameras all the time to take notes and to snap pictures of new schedules, patient charts or simple paper notes.

Broadcast SMS messaging – Those who manage a large team of doctors and nurses at the Lunsar ETC need an efficient way to communicate with all of them at the same time. Sometimes it’s a reminder of a meeting, that the schedule has changed or that we’re expecting a new patient admission. Other times, it’s a reminder of a daily task.

Sending group texts from my cheap local phone would be accessible only to me, so we set up the Magpi Messaging system. Unlike setting up group texts only on my phone, I can give my coworkers access to the system, so they can also utilize it online (Internet permitting) to send their messages and reminders. Simple things such as text-message reminders help keep this place running smoothly.

Dropbox – We use Dropbox all the time to make documents easily available to our medical team. Everything from doctor schedules to photos to copies of the forms we use in our clinic are shared via Dropbox. If the team needs to print more pharmacy forms, for example, the latest version is easily accessible.

Microsoft Excel – Though it’s not anything new, Excel is a constant tool at our ETC. We use it to create patient reports, make the nurses’ schedules, do drug dosage calculations, create new forms for keeping track of drugs and supplies and keep lists of staff and phone numbers. It may have been around forever, but Excel is one of the most useful tools we have.

Google Docs – Google Spreadsheets is almost as useful as Microsoft Excel, although of course it’s online. That’s both a plus and a minus: The online component makes Google Docs really easy to share, but our sporadic Internet access means that sometimes those documents aren’t available. So while we do use it, Excel is sometimes more convenient.

Skype – Everyone here uses Skype (along with other tools such as Whatsapp, Facetime, Line, etc.) to keep in touch with colleagues and family back home. Our jobs here are difficult and the working environment can be tough (it gets very hot wearing those Personal Protective Equipment suits in a non-air-conditioned tent in the tropical heat), so being able to keep in touch with loved ones back home helps keep morale high. Facebook also helps people connect with their far-flung support groups during this trying assignment.

These are only some of the technology tools that help in the fight against Ebola, and we continue to look for other ways technology can aid us. Not all tools we normally use are helping us be more efficient here, such as email. For instance, our lab reports get emailed around as Excel attachments to a list of about 100 people — but by the time we get the email the attachment is already out of date. As we continue to help the people of Sierra Leone, we are also looking for ways to make this process more efficient in order to stop the spread of this deadly virus.

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