Leveraging technology to combat Ebola in West Africa was always going to be an uphill fight.
“You have very little cellphone coverage,” said Steven VanRoekel, chief innovation officer at the U.S. Agency for International Development. “You have unreliable power everywhere. Devices you would want to put out to the field probably can’t connect to the Internet.”
Health care workers trying to communicate with each can wait for as long as 24 hours for a single text message to inch across 2G cell networks, he said.
“We hear stories about people climbing to the top of an anthill or a tree and holding their phone up so they can get data downloaded on it, and then they go down and they can send an email,” he said.
So, suffice it to say, VanRoekel, the administration’s point-man in using technology in response to the outbreak, is clear-eyed about the challenges he faces in his job.
“The key here is that technology is not the solution to Ebola,” VanRoekel, said Thursday at a Washington, D.C., event hosted by FedScoop.
Instead, the former federal chief information officer is asking, “What can technology do … to help us make better, faster decisions — to get our arms around this in a way we wouldn’t be able to without technology’s help?”
USAID Wants to Give Doctors Better Tech
For now, a big piece of USAID’s efforts lie in improving the technology doctors and nurses use when treating patients with Ebola.
For example, widespread use of tablets and other devices at Ebola treatment centers to track patients’ medical histories has, so far, been limited because there aren’t surefire ways to disinfect commercial electronics.
“You’d have to be able to dip that tablet in chlorine water to get any virulent material that’s on it, off,” VanRoekel said. USAID is now working with providers to offer “ruggedized” tablets.
Another major project is a redesign of the stifling hot and jerry-rigged protective suits health care workers wear when dealing with patients.
For now, the best protection for nurses and doctors treating Ebola patients are hooded suits made out of a light-weight plastic material called Tyvek. Workers have to be sure to cover all seams with medical tape and are then swathed in a rubber apron.