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Design in Action: Preparing To Set Up a Temporary Mobile Medical Clinic

I’m one of a group of volunteers traveling to Indonesia from the Philadelphia area this month to set up temporary mobile medical clinics for children and workers at an orphanage and in other rural areas.

In the roughly ten days we’re there, we hope to treat non-acute conditions (minor infections, scrapes, etc.) and assess patient health and the possible need for follow-up. We want to help forge relationships with physicians on the ground that can be sustained after our group leaves. We also want to teach the children we meet about germs, nutrition, and proper dental hygiene. (I’m pictured above doing just that on an earlier trip. The other photos in this post are also from an earlier trip to the region. )

To get ready for the trip, I’ve been looking into and thinking about how human-centered design is best applied to global health solutions.

Human-Centered Design for Global Health Solutions

My colleague, Aditi Singh, touched on this topic in an earlier blog post about attending the 2018 HFES Healthcare Symposium. She wrote that seven percent of the lesser developed nations in the world account for about eighty percent of the world’s population. These are countries that operate much differently and have very different needs from what we’re familiar with in more technologically developed nations.

Although their needs are different, the human-centered design process is still the best approach. This approach involves thinking about the environment and context of use — and meeting users where they are.

My group made a similar trip to Indonesia last November and set up a temporary mobile clinic in a junkyard. Erecting a medical clinic in a junkyard might sound counterintuitive to those of us with ready access to health services, but the group discovered when they got there that junkyards are popular gathering hubs. They ended up reaching a hundred patients a day.

Erecting a medical clinic in a junkyard might sound counterintuitive, but the group discovered when they got there that junkyards are popular gathering hubs.

This is a great example of the importance of understanding cultural context. In that particular place, setting up in a junkyard was a smart way to capture the most patients. Designing for isolated groups in developing countries requires researching not just the problem that needs to be solved, but also the quirks and circumstances of the local community. This is where field research comes in — this level of understanding is impossible to attain if you’re not there.

Preparing for the Unexpected

Logistics needed to be figured out on the fly on that earlier trip, and that’ll be true for our upcoming trip, as well — we could see fifty patients a day, or we could see two hundred! I’m anticipating a lot of challenges, such as thinking through workflows to maximize efficiency; figuring out how to triage appropriately; and setting up good standards as early as possible.

Our team has only two practicing physicians on it. I’m not a practicing doctor, but I am an M.D. by trade, so I’ll be part of the planning and administrative team that’s organizing the proper method of triage, translation, and treatment. We’ll need to instantly assess the environment and determine where to efficiently place various team members to optimize time and resources.

Ultimately our best preparation is to embrace the mindset to immerse ourselves quickly and be empathetic and creative in our approach.

How do you position yourself to be able to operate nimbly and effectively on the ground when there are a good number of unknowns? How do you prepare? For one, we’re bringing over-the-counter medication such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and digestion treatments to distribute in little baggies while we’re there.

We’re also thinking about how best to teach patients how to differentiate between the meds in the baggies. We’ll be able to come up with a better solution once we arrive and begin to understand how the patient population views medication. This is just one example of a set of patient needs we won’t know or fully understand until we’re there.

Logistically, we’re doing our best to prepare for the unexpected. This is how the iterative design process works! You do the best to design, but at the end of the day, it is often within a vacuum or bubble. You need to fully integrate yourself (or the product) to finally get a sense for what’s really going to happen.

Of course our timeline is dramatically compressed compared to the typical design process. Ultimately our best preparation is to embrace the mindset to immerse ourselves quickly and be empathetic and creative in our approach.

I’m excited for the challenges ahead — and to report back when I return!