Making a difference: Tech students create a mobile clinic for use in Ghana

HOUGHTON – During the 2012-2013 academic year, a group of Michigan Technological University students completed an unusual project. In addition to their usual classes, 12 students – including four enrolled in the Pavlis Institute and a mechanical engineering student design team – made a graduate student’s idea a reality by conceptualizing and building a mobile clinic to be used in Ghana.

“What they really needed to get started with something like this was the idea and a vehicle that was designated as the outreach vehicle,” said Leah Dawson, one of the four Pavlis students who worked on the project and traveled to Ghana.

The vehicle, which was donated to the team by Michigan Tech, was equipped with medical equipment donated by U.P. hospitals, a water system, a refrigerator in which to store medication and a generator to run the machines. The team also purchased an ultrasound machine with part of their $8,000 budget. They received $4,000 in donations using Superior Ideas, which was then matched by the U.P. Healthcare Network.

George Butvilas, facilities director, hands the keys for a van to student Erik Wachlin. Pictured, right to left, are Nicholas Hendrickson, School of Technology; Institute for Leadership and Innovation director Robert Warrington; and President Glenn Mroz.

“We used that money for infrastructure for the van, because we kind of tore everything out and then rebuilt it. So we designed the van and the Mechanical Engineers put it into reality,” said Dawson.

Over the summer, the four Pavlis students – Dawson, Erik Wachlin, Andrea Kubicki and Laura Harris – along with their advisor, Bob Warrington, accompanied the mobile clinic van to Ghana. During their five week stay, they traveled with the van for about two weeks.

“What they would do is pretty much stock it with a team of 14 and go out to these villages,” said Dawson. “We’d meet under the mango tree and all of the tables were supplied there. The hospitals supplied the items you would throw away – the disposables – and the vaccinations and all the medications.”

“It worked well with their system there because they almost have a universal healthcare system. They pay basically what is the equivalent of $3.50 U.S. and that covers them for three years of full medical care and most people get it because it just makes sense,” said Wachlin. “So all they do is record their name and then what they treated them for and the government reimburses the doctors.”

The team saw an average of 80 patients per day, about 30 of which, Wachlin said, had malaria. Although healthcare is affordable, access to hospitals, doctors and equipment can be difficult, another reason the mobile clinic is valuable in Ghana.

“The issue is not only that (traveling to the nearest hospital), but they can’t afford to stock every hospital with good medical equipment. They won’t have an ultrasound and all these things to be able to actually diagnose correctly,” said Wachlin. “So by making a mobile clinic you can actually afford buying nice equipment and just bring it around to the people.”

Although there was an ultrasound machine on the mobile clinic, the team encountered very few people who knew how to operate it.

“We had expected there to be some kind of ultrasound in each medical facility but we only ran into one person who knew anything about ultrasounds and we spent one day with him,” said Dawson.

“Then he taught me and I taught the rest of the teams we worked with because we never again ran into someone who knew how to use one.”

The team found that most of their work involved ultrasounds for pregnant women and basic first aid. Dawson recalled how children in the villages would have large wounds that were uncovered and in danger of becoming infected, but parents did not think there was an issue. In the future, they hope that medical education will be a focus of the mobile clinic to help prevent serious health problems and misunderstandings.

“Basic first aid is not taught and that goes all the way up, even in the hospital they wait until sepsis sets in and becomes internal and then they treat it with antibiotics instead of treating outside before it becomes a problem,” said Dawson. “So we ended up doing some basic first aid that we were trained in here and then started teaching the staff and bought them some first aid supplies to get started in the education but I think that would be something to be further built upon in the future with mobile clinics.”

They also noticed misconceptions about women’s health. One example they recalled was a woman in her 50s who visited the van for an ultrasound. Since she had not gotten her period, she believed she was pregnant.

“We know that’s just menopause but she didn’t realize that and actually most women don’t know menopause exists – it’s not talked about,” said Wachlin. “So we gave her a scan, showed her there was nothing there, but in the end it has to be explained very well because otherwise other people in the community will blame it on juju, which is like voodoo, and they’ll almost kick them out of the community because they think it will affect younger women and they won’t be able to get pregnant.”

Students from the Pavlis Institute will continue to visit Ghana and work with the mobile clinic. While they may build another clinic in the future, there are no definite plans to outfit another van until after they receive more feedback from the doctors in Ghana about the van and what modifications could increase its efficiency.

“A huge problem in Ghana is that people do have a little bit of a lack of faith in your projects when you come in because so many people and so many different organizations have come in and dropped these projects, they get started and don’t follow through,” said Dawson. “So we really see the importance now of finishing what you’ve started.”