Imagine you’re a physician with a disaster-relief group. You’ve bounced over bad roads to get to a remote cholera clinic, leaving behind Internet and cell-tower access. You keep careful medical records of patients by typing the information into your shirt-pocket smartphone. Once in range, your phone (and those of your colleagues at other remote clinics) uploads these records to a central server, where the data may not only benefit your patients in the future, but also help decision-makers monitor the outbreak all over the region.
Thanks in part to UVM medical student Nicholas Wilkie, that scenario may soon be reality. As a volunteer with the humanitarian-aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, also known as Doctors Without Borders), Wilkie is developing software that stores cholera patients’ medical records on a smartphone.
The third-year student, who is also a veteran programmer, was inspired to write to MSF in June 2011, after hearing Professor of Surgery Bruce Leavitt, M.D.’81 share his experiences with MSF in Nigeria and Sri Lanka. In those field hospitals, Leavitt says, the patient’s surgical record consisted of handwritten notes in manila folders. “At the end of the day, they’d pile them up in a room in a corner,” he recalls. Wilkie approached Leavitt with his idea.
Getting the green light from Doctors Without Borders
Wilkie then found his way to Thang Dao, MSF’s Switzerland-based director of information services. His timing was fortuitous, as MSF was in the process of changing how it managed patient information. Soon he had written a crucial piece of software, one that gets central computers running OpenMRS and far-flung Androids to talk to each other. “It will send electronic health information in a cogent way to the server and record it the way that we want it to,” Wilkie explains.
Dao was so impressed that he invited the student to meet with him and his colleagues in Geneva to discuss adapting the design for doctors responding to cholera outbreaks. “We are one of the few organizations in the world that can deal on a large scale with cholera epidemics,” said Dao. “What was missing for us was how to collect data quickly, and closest to the sources of contamination — which is to say in the villages.”
“Nick is one of these people who can launch himself in very thick snow and make a track for us,” says Dao.