Engineering Change in the Developing World

After being founded in 2001, Engineering World Health now has over 40 different chapters at different universities across the nation

Originally published in the 2017 DukEngineer Magazine

"If you really want to help the developing world, you have to be in the developing world,” says Engineering World Health co-founder Robert Malkin, professor of the practice of biomedical engineering. “By being on the ground, you improve your chances of making a difference.”

Engineering World Health (EWH) was founded in 2001 after Professor Malkin began doing surgical trips in the developing world. He quickly realized that the hospitals as a whole needed help. Now, over 40 different chapters of EWH exist at different universities across the nation. The organization has expanded its reach to six different countries, where students work to repair medical equipment in hospitals in developing nations.2017 DukEngineer

The original purpose of EWH was to organize medical equipment donations, but it was altered after the donations were deemed to be less effective than they were originally thought to be. “We found it better to organize students to get on the ground and help with repairing equipment that other people had donated,” says Professor Malkin on the shift in the organization’s priorities.

EWH began to not only focus on getting students into the hospitals, but also on creating more permanent solutions to the lack of trained technicians locally. The Biomedical Engineering Technicians training program (BMET) began in 2009 with the goal of doing just that.

According to EWH’s website, nearly 40 percent of critical medical equipment in developing countries is in need of repair or replacement. The goal of the BMET is to develop a local workforce trained to repair the medical equipment that sits unused in hospitals that desperately need it.

Since its implementation in Rwanda with the help of The GE Foundation, the BMET training program has had major success and has expanded to Ghana,Cambodia and Honduras. EWH, along with Developing World Healthcare Technologies Lab (DHT), has created a library of resources to continue to help the graduates of BMET after they complete the program.

Engineering World Health student repairing a hot air sterilizerOver the years, EWH’s priorities have shifted toward building more sustainable solutions to the problem of broken medical equipment. The biggest barrier facing the developing world in terms of medical equipment, however, is that equipment itself is often not designed to function well in low-resource settings. Many companies and venture capitalists deem medical equipment in the developing world too risky of an endeavor.

“There is not very much money in the developing world, meaning the number-one thing that would drive innovation is absent,” says Professor Malkin on the lack of medical equipment built for low-resource settings. “Things like the notion of credit and the ability to access funds when needed are absent in the developing world, which makes it very difficult for companies to get started.”

Because of the lack of money and innovation flowing into these developing regions, organizations like EWH play a vital role in the development of hospitals in low-resource settings. EWH differs from other organizations by helping hospitals become more self-sustaining, thereby benefiting healthcare in the long run.

It can be challenging to assess what is needed to make an impact in the developing world. Though it is nearly impossible to enter into another country and not impact it negatively in some way, according to Professor Malkin, there is a best way to make a change.

“It is more likely that you will succeed if you’re face to face with the people,” says Professor Malkin. “It’s the easiest way to see what is working and what is not working. By being on the ground you improve your chances of making a difference.”

With each trip, EWH strives to make that difference and to aid in the effort of improving the lives of many in developing regions across the world.

Camille Carr is a first-year Pratt student majoring in mechanical engineering.