The Future of Mobile Medicine: Shipping Containers to Fight Ebola

The future of fighting Ebola might soon be found inside a 40-foot steel box.

The Emergency Smart Pod, a modular eight-bed medical unit inside a recycled shipping container, won a preliminary grant of $850,000 from the U. S. Agency for International Development on Wednesday. Beds in the Emergency Smart Pod will be spaced six feet apart, per federal guidelines, and each have a combination sink and latrine.

Less than 5 percent of the cost of a brick-and-mortar medical unit, and able to be dropped – literally, by helicopter – into virtually any location in just two weeks, the pod could present the future of mobile medicine: a self-contained, fully powered, tent-free alternative for not only responding to epidemics, but bringing operating rooms, maternity wards, and more to remote locations abroad and disaster-stricken areas here at home.

The first might be built as soon as June, perhaps for as little as $700,000.

“Getting medical care to those areas and developing capacity there is a huge issue,” says Dr. Sharmila Anandasabapathy, director of Baylor Global Initiatives at the Baylor College of Medicine. “You have to be quick and fast. You need a Vespa, not a Mack truck.”

And shipping containers offer just that kind of speed and flexibility, she and her team say.

“It’s almost like Ikea,” Anandasabapathy says, referring to the Scandinavian company known for its easy-to-build furniture. “You can put it together very quickly, you can put multiple units together, you can daisy chain them to create larger hospitals or units.”

[HOSPITAL OF TOMORROW: Fewer Americans Harmed or Killed by Hospital Errors]

The 40-foot steel boxes are cheap and easy to find: With China exporting so many products to the U.S., and the U.S. sending comparatively few back, the U.S. is awash in what’s known as one-way containers, stuck here because it costs too much to send them back empty.
A health worker walks into a medical tent Aug. 21, 2014, in Monrovia, Liberia, for patients suffering Ebola. Tents face a greater risk of flooding compared to shipping containers, the Emergency Smart Pod team says.
A health worker walks into a medical tent in August in Monrovia, Liberia, for patients suffering Ebola. Tents face a greater risk of flooding compared to shipping containers, the Emergency Smart Pod team says.

Though a handful of enthusiasts use the containers to build homes, for the most part shipping containers are an untapped resource. “There’s no secondary uses for them – our competition is scrap metal pricing,” says Clark Byrum, president and CEO of Biologics Modular, an Indiana manufacturing firm that has made a business these past four years of building health-related modular facilities – from small manufacturing hubs to testing labs – out of shipping containers.

A single box sells for as little as $3,500 to $4,000. And that’s a steal: The containers, he says, are “engineering marvels” tailor-made for heavy loads and arduous travel.

“They’re built to go on ships – in hurricanes – and handle a lot of abuse,” Byrum says.

[READ: ‘Global Budgets’ Slow Health Spending, Improve Care, Harvard Study Says]

And that makes them perfect for far-flung medical crises, not only durable for the journey there, but able to then stay in place as long as needed – perhaps as long as 20 years.

“It’s not going to rust or dissolve,” Anandasabapathy says.
The smart pods can be linked together to create larger treatment units or incorporate new facilities, such as waste treatment centers.
The smart pods can be linked together to create larger treatment units or incorporate new facilities, such as waste treatment centers.

Each pod would be a self-contained unit, outfitted with heat and air conditioning, HEPA filtration, sinks, latrines, a wireless internet connection, a centralized nurse station allowing medical workers to see everything inside the pod, and rigid color-coded partitions between different sections to prevent the spread of disease. Bar codes on equipment and patients would help workers in the field, letting them know which units are full, which have beds available and which supplies need to be replenished. Smartphones and tablet computers would provide an in-house link for consulting with experts remotely, plus translation tools and training apps to quiz workers on, for example, how to reduce contamination.

“Color-coordinating, creating these tools, they would train people on the use of these units in the field and promote standardization,” Anandasabapathy says. And by “integrating flows and protocols that would be easily understood by clinical providers,” workers could be rapidly trained, either in a hot zone or ahead of time at a planned training center at Baylor’s campus in Texas.

“Our hope is that this is just the first of many,” she says. “If it’s not Ebola, it’s going to be something else. Labor and delivery is a big problem in other areas of the world — can we make a lower-cost portable obstetric unit for women who don’t have access to hospitals for childbirth? Can we make a lower-cost procedural unit with anesthesia capability that doesn’t use electrical power sources? Can we develop a low-cost gastroenterology and endoscopy unit to do procedures? This is something that we hope to do down the road.”

Clarified on Feb. 12, 2015: This story was updated to clarify that the $850,000 awarded in the grant is a preliminary amount.

Source: http://t.usnews.com/Z6qbdx

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s