SURREY — If you sustain a serious head injury in a crash in Canada, you’ll likely be at a hospital that can perform surgery in under an hour.
And your odds of survival are good, with a neurosurgeon for every hundred thousand people in the country.
In Africa, those odds are grim, with only one neurosurgeon for every six million people in some areas.
But a new app – dreamt up and created in Surrey – aims to better those odds.
The idea came from Surrey surgeon Dr. Ronald Lett (pictured teaching in Africa), who founded the non-profit Canadian Network for International Surgery (CNIS) more than 20 years ago. Over the last two decades, surgeons with CNIS have physically travelled to Africa to teach healthcare workers there and have trained more than 30,000 people.
But after stumbling across a simple game on Google Store, Lett began to dream up a game of his own.
The surgeon approached Surrey-based tech company Conquer Mobile – located right across the street from Surrey Memorial Hospital where he works – to create an app that could do simulation training.
They hope the app – dubbed MOST (Mobile Optimized Skills Training) – can train 25,000 African healthcare workers in the next three years, which could have an impact on two million patients, reducing maternal and injury mortality rates.
The program will turn lectures into games, making it “interactive and fun,” said Lett, but added, “The fun doesn’t mean the objective isn’t serious. The serious objective is that they learn.”
So far, they’ve teamed up and created one of 12 planned courses. The first course focuses on traumatic brain and spine injuries, aimed at general surgeons who do craniotomies. Courses yet to come include caesarean section and trauma training, some targeted at clinical officers who function as general practitioners in Africa, others at midwives who function as obstetricians there.
It’s been a labour-intensive process to create avatars that are as close to real patients as humanly possible, Lett explained.
“So how, with a brain injured patient, do the pupils react to light depending on the clinical situation? Different sizes, their eyes have to open and close, all of this is part of a neurological assessment,” he said. “We are creating digital models of our patients and everything that a patient does has to be coded. That’s a lot of work and there’s a significant amount of expense in starting this, but once we have this, we will be able to popularize these teaching programs globally. We will be pushing it in Africa, where we have partners we work with, but we see no reason it can’t be used in Asia, even North America and Europe will benefit from them.
“There are some places we can’t go,” he added. “We’ve been invited to go to Tibet, but we weren’t allowed to go for. This would be perfect for the situation in Tibet. Change the avatars so that they become Tibetan, change their clothes, and of course translate it into one or more dialects and make it available in that country. So that would deal with the challenges of crossing borders where human beings might not be able to.”
It’s quite an amazing project for Lett, who laughed as he recalled looking at Commodore computers when he was in medical school.
“There were no apps back then, no cell phones,” he laughed.
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Kathy O’Donoghue, managing director of Surrey-based Conquer Mobile, said virtual reality is making learning more immersive.
“Conquer Mobile’s mantra is education as an experience, kind of like the Star Trek holodeck. That’s kind of the future for Conquer Mobile,” she said.
The project was shortlisted as one of the top 20 finalists in the Google Impact Challenge, which supports Canadian non-profit innovators using technology to tackle the world’s biggest social challenges.
And, it was showcased earlier this month at the BC Tech Summit Conference in Vancouver.
“It’s pretty cool that technology built right here in B.C. is having a global impact,” O’Donoghue remarked.
For Lett, giving back is in his blood.
“Basically my parents expected me to make the world a better place,” he said, adding that the project is close to his heart.
“It’s pretty exciting and it’s actually very important personally. I think these 12 courses are very important contributions and actually they’re my career contributions to health in Africa. So if we can get them on mobile apps, they will be there forever. That’s, to me, a legacy I’d be very proud of.”
The only sticking point now is how to pay for the creation of the rest of the courses.
Traditionally, CNIS received funding from the Canadian government but that has “become minuscule,” noted Lett.
“We continue to do work with the support of several family foundations and certainly we’re very grateful for that but if we’re going to get this work done – all twelve courses – we need other sources of funding and financing,” he told the Now. “And we need to look at alternatives to traditional methods of funding. We’ve just come to the idea that we will try crowdfunding…. We will have that mobilized in the very near future.”
Stay tuned to thenownewspaper.com for updates once the fundraising campaign goes live.