Working on a project that matters where it matters most

This post was originally published on International Program Development’s NU in South Africa blog. Blogger Sarah Uttal is wrapping up her time in South Africa on IPD’s Global Healthcare Technologies program at the University of Cape Town and reflects on how her group’s work had an immediate positive impact on a primary care facility in Cape Town.

As our time in Cape Town draws to a close, we are all working hard to finish up our design projects we have worked on all quarter. This quarter has given each of us the opportunity to design a medical device to be used in South Africa, dealing specifically with South African health problems. Our classes here also taught us how to correctly think about these devices in a broader setting of health technology management and their potential cultural impact.

I got to work on a redesign of the current respirators used to protect against tuberculosis (TB) infection. We first came across these respirators during our time in KwaZulu-Natal when we had to wear them before entering a TB ward. Since TB is one of the top five causes of death in South Africa these respirators are used all over the country, but that does not mean they are the ideal way to protect oneself from the disease. We actually found them almost unbearable and decided there had to be a more comfortable solution to this problem. It was great to experience a problem first hand, hear the impact a better solution would have, and then begin to work on it in the setting where it would be implemented. We were able to speak to so many professionals around Cape Town and even around the country who gave us insights into why these respirators are not functional and how we could work to make them better. This is exactly what I was excited about doing before coming to Cape Town, working on a project that matters where it matters most.

Our entire group also worked on a waiting time study at the primary care facilities around Cape Town. People here wait for hours before being seen by a doctor and the government called us in to figure out why. We spent long days in clinics tagging patients and tracking clinic flow to determine where the system was failing. This meant hours of patient contact every day as people approached us telling us their problems with their healthcare system and letting us know how we could help fix it. This was another design project where we could really make a difference immediately. It is hard as an outsider to come into a South African community health clinic without much previous knowledge and try to change the system, which is why these patient anecdotes were so valuable. After multiple full days with 5:45am starts we began to get the hang of the clinic flow and figured out how to tag all the patients coming to clinic. We also began to observe some problematic trends and best practices we are now able to pass on to administration. We learned so much about the primary health care system’s successes and failures by being a part of this unique experience. It was definitely hard work but hopefully we made an impact and will have made those wait times a bit shorter for a frustrated patient population. It is great to know we are leaving having helped a country that has given so much to us these last few months.

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