Engineering Students Improve South African Medical Clinics

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When Americans get sick, we drive to the nearest health clinic to visit a doctor. In rural South Africa, it is often times more practical for the care to come to the patient. Penn State engineering students work in South Africa to bring improvements to these mobile medical clinics.

This care is delivered in the form of trucks, provided by the government, staffed with nurses who traverse the countryside bringing care mainly to farm workers, who are unable to get out to a clinic.

Unfortunately, many of these mobile clinics have limited or outdated technology, among other problems. For instance, there is a lack of storage space which results in incomplete patient records.

“This is a major problem because chronic illnesses which require regular treatment, such as blood pressure and AIDS, cannot be addressed. Also, acute illnesses run the risk of becoming more serious or even life-threatening if ignored,” said Eric Froede, a second-year master’s student in mechanical engineering.

There were also failures on basic sanitation levels. In the old model the water tanks were often insufficient, which meant that nurses had to see consecutive patients without washing their hands.

Other problems include an inability to deal with the extreme summer (and winter) temperature and unreliable vehicles that allowed the integrity of the clinical environment to be compromised by letting in dust.

Froede, along with teammate and mechanical engineering doctorate student Bryan Lewis, is a member of the Global Engineering Team, an educational network of universities dedicated to bringing graduate-level engineers together from across international boundaries. Penn State is currently the only U.S. partner in this network. In this project, Froede and Lewis are collaborating with two first-year mechanical engineering graduate students from Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

In mid-September, the team traveled to Berlin to present their design. After a year of testing, the South African government hopes to replace its full fleet within three years.

Lewis and Froede hope not only to modernize the equipment, but also to institute a modular design, which allows the nurses to exchange equipment depending on the needs of the patients. Presumably this would solve some of the record-keeping and hygiene issues as well.

As for vehicular reliability, the mechanical engineers agree; Germans know what they are doing. They have opted to go with the Volkswagen Crafter 35 as the platform which will house these mobile clinics.

Matthew Parkinson, associate professor of engineering design and mechanical engineering at Penn State, and Cornie Scheffer, professor of biomedical engineering at Stellenbosch University, served as mentors on this project.

A report on Penn State Live helped contribute to this story. 

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Hey, I'm Joe. I enjoy long walks on the beach and good conversation. Gouda cheese is nice, but I prefer Brie. I'm very well-traveled. A typical Saturday night for me is spent at Irving's Cafe. I drink coffee for the taste.

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