Eighty percent of all medical equipment in the developing world is secondhand and will fail in the first six months,” says Lisa Schlecht. “We wanted to teach engineers and doctors in Latin America to use local materials to make their own medical devices.”
Recently, Schlecht traveled to Managua, Nicaragua on behalf of Innovations in International Health, an MIT-based organization that focuses on medical technology for the developing world. The network brings together 76 engineers, scientists, doctors, nurses, academics, and students from the Boston area to design medical devices for third-world countries. Last summer, Schlecht was part of a design team that implemented biomedical kits in Managua, which may help professionals innovate health devices suitable to local needs.
Schlecht, who studies mechanical engineering, visited the Children’s Hospital in Managua as well as two clinics in Esteli. “They had lab equipment that was older than I am,” Schlecht says, adding that during the internship she developed updated biomedical kits, including a pregnancy test and more efficient drug delivery. For example, they created a syringe that a doctor could pull back using just one hand. And for children who had respiratory problems, their group worked to make the nebulizer ward more friendly; they designed a vital signs reader in the paw of a stuffed animal. Now, her goal is to round up other MIT students to help with those designs.
“By using local resources and local knowledge to create their own medical technologies, it’s cheaper and faster than waiting for equipment to come from outside the country. These professionals weren’t lacking materials or knowledge, but they were lacking the mindset that they have the power to innovate themselves,” she says, adding that part of the job was to introduce the idea of another possibility. “Much of the work we did was helping them to break old mental models of what medical equipment is and helping them to realize that there are alternatives.”
Last year, Schlecht took a Spanish class on science technology. “Communicating in Spanish was a challenge,” she says. “But the course was great preparation for this project, because I felt so comfortable talking about these technologies.
“Learning outside the classroom is a different kind of learning experience,” she says. “As a student, it’s amazing to have your voice heard by doctors and other professionals. It makes you realize that you’re a professional, too.”