Giving Back One Telemedicine Backpack at a Time

During a disaster, infrastructure, like electricity, water, roads and communication, may be damaged or destroyed.   Large crowds of people are in critical need. “Help can’t get to them and they can’t get to help,” Randy Roberson found. The social infrastructure is surely overwhelmed and chaotic without any command and control.  Medical care, which is desperately needed, may not be able to get to those in need.  Imagine yourself  in such a  bleak situation, overwhelmed,  with desperate or injured mothers, children, elderly, and you have nothing to offer them.

Over the past 15 years, Roberson has entered turmoil and tried to find solutions.  Using technology, Roberson has created two innovations that are making a difference.  The “Doc-in-a-Box” and the “Bring-Em-Back-Pack” uses telemedicine and solar or wind power to bring the expertise of physicians living outside the disaster zone to relief workers treating the injured.   Since 2004, telemedicine has been rendering medical aid to disaster victims in India, Thailand, Africa and the US.

Roberson was motivated by need.  There has been “a repeatedly documented need for a medical clinic that was clean, well equipped and brought in via land, sea or air,” he remembers.  Creating the clinic included assuring that it was securable and tough enough to withstand aftershocks and rough terrain.

Roberson didn’t start out doing relief work.   He was a broadcast journalist who had a life changing interview with Dr. Larry Ward, founder of Food for the Hungry, an international relief and development organization.  “The interview really rocked my understanding of many things and made me want to know more,” says Roberson.  Subsequently Roberson quit his job and began an eight year mentorship with Dr. Ward, learning how to perform needs assessments and how to move in chaotic environments.

Yet even with this mentorship, Roberson felt he needed more.  “The first hours and days after major events are when large crowds are in critical need…People would be crying out to me for help but I wasn’t a medical professional,” Roberson explains.  “But I did know satellite communications and have always been a tech nerd.”  By the 2004 tsumani that hit Indonesia, Roberson and Dr. Alan Michels had created a telemedicine clinic.  “He (Dr. Michels) would look over my shoulder from 8000 miles… He guided me with ‘Do this-try that-put pressure here’ sort of fashion.  I placed a digital stethoscope on a patient in anIndia relief camp in and on other side of world he could hear the beat.”

Roberson is clear that in the future deployments of the mobile medical clinic, they will be staffed with former special forces corpsman. “These corpsman also know what it is like to work in chaos when you run out of bandages and use t-shirts instead,” Roberson assures.  With that kind of experience they are ready for anything.

 The clinic idea has grown to include a “complete containerized field hospital with all medical, housing, food, water and sanitation needs,”says Roberson.  The backpack was created for versatility.  They provide first response before the clinics are delivered. With it, relief workers can preform needs assessments and  “mass triage and transport operations and even day -to -day operations of humanitarian relief,” Roberson explains.  Patient assessments and electronic medical records can be started in the field and the patient information gets to the field or ship hospital prior to the patient’s arrival there.

Using solar power and wind is truly forward thinking, “In almost every major disaster event power is out and communications are down.  In many instances it takes weeks to restore those (in some countries months). To sustain operations we focus on solar, wind and fuel cell technologies to remain functional when completely off power and telecommunications.  We can then quickly switch back to cellular and standard power when it’s reliable again,” Roberson explains.

When relief workers come into a disaster area, they are always forced to make critical decisions based on a lack of real time information.  The “Bring-Em-Back-Pack” provides information through its rapidly deployable live audio, video and other data streams.  Saving lives and reducing suffering are the two greatest initial needs of a disaster situation and they are the focus of

this mobile telemedicine project. With it,  the same tool is used to move the situation through the 4 stages of incident response: rescue, recovery relief and redevelopment.

One of the most important features of this technology is its ability to keep people engaged after the media stops reporting about a disaster. “We also use to reach back to the world through social media and board rooms of corporate sponsors and foundations.  [It] keeps people engaged after the media stops reporting (all too quick) and it provides amazing accountability and transparency which is greatly lacking in humanitarian relief worldwide,” Roberson believes.

Creating these aids has been an act of love for Roberson.  [I’ve] “mostly paid out of pocket, [and am] working on now attracting partners.  Some support [has come] from friends. It drains pockets quickly, Roberson states.  Roberson and his colleague have created a for-profit arm  of his organization to bring these technologies to market and thus fund the not-for-profit Disaster Logistics Relief  that has been established.  To learn more please contact Randy Roberson at rroberson@disasterlogistics.org .

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