Quintin, the remote-controlled tele-presence robot that helps to put patients in Tygerberg Hospital's Covid-19 ICU in virtual contact with their families, is set to feature in an innovative student project aimed at tackling urgent global health challenges.
Two medical students from the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS) at Stellenbosch University (SU) have been selected out of many international applicants to take part in a project that will see them developing and expanding Quintin's role.
The students - final-year student Azhar Adam Nadkar and fourth-year student Jessica Davies – are participating in the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health's Innovate4Health Global Student Design Sprint – an initiative which aims to “inspire innovators for the future to tackle the urgent challenges and health inequities of emerging infections."
Their team – which is called CareBots – comprises the two of them, as well as two participants from India, Mokshada Sharma and Tapesh Dutt Nagaria.
Quintin, a Double Robotics robot, was initially used to help ICU specialists with patient monitoring during ward rounds at the height of the pandemic, but his role evolved to connecting ICU patients, who were not allowed to receive visitors, with their families by means of technology. Tygerberg Hospital's Covid-19 psycho-social support team, under the leadership of Dr Kerry-Ann Louw from the Department of Psychiatry, started using Quintin as a vehicle to transport a tablet device with WhatsApp video-calling capabilities to patients' bedsides.
The robot ended up playing a vital role in connecting patients and families, while simultaneously freeing up medical staff to do other work in the ICU wards. Heart-warming stories abound about how the robot helped to relieve patients of the psychological trauma of not being able to have contact with their families.
The team's local mentor, Dr Riette Burger, an oncologist and member of the Covid-19 support team, guided the students in analysing current gaps in the logistical, technical and regulatory aspects of Quintin's day-to-day operation. Implementing a high-tech solution into a lower-tech, resource-constrained environment usually requires creative approaches. It is this innovative and fresh point of view that she hopes the student team and their involvement in the design sprint will bring to the project.
Innovate4Health is a design initiative that focuses on empowering students from health and other disciplines to solve problems in healthcare settings and communities. It aims to “identify real-life local projects that would have the potential to make a positive and scalable impact on communities, develop implementable solutions, and advocacy approaches." The design sprint will extend over three to four months.
Student teams, which consist of two to four students, were asked to provide a vision for a possible innovation that might solve a specific problem. They needed to provide the context, and describe exactly how they would implement the project. The student teams selected to join the cohort of this year's design sprint will be working with global health leaders to achieve three things: to design their innovations, to help them develop their ideas from ideation to implementation, and to develop advocacy strategies to support the adoption of the approaches.
Asked how their application came about and why they chose to focus on Quintin in the project, Nadkar said “Covid-19 related morbidity and mortality had created a landscape of bereavement and psychosocial distress amidst patients, their families, and healthcare workers globally. The inability to communicate with a loved one at their most vulnerable time, further compounded by unexpected loss of life due to Covid-19, is a burden too difficult to carry for many.
“When I saw the advertisement for the Innovate4Health Global Student Design Sprint, I knew that this was an opportunity for me to become empowered and skilled by participating in the development and implementation of a sustainable solution aimed at enabling patients to connect virtually with their loved ones during a time where human contact is not possible.
“I chose this project as I firmly believe that with the guidance of the Innovate4Health Global Student Design Sprint facilitators, our team will be able to build on the foundation established at Tygerberg Hospital by Dr Kerry Louw and the Covid-19 support team. The goal is to develop and implement audio-visual consultation systems by means of which patients, family members and members of the multidisciplinary team can interact during Covid-19, and in other healthcare settings where physical contact is limited."
Nadkar and Davies have worked together on several initiatives, both within student societies and student-driven academic support programmes, saying they are guided by their service to others and their commitment to learning and growing both within and outside their medical curricula.
Nadkar said he is “honoured and privileged" to be taking part in the design sprint.
“The Design Sprint has provided me with a unique opportunity to start working towards instituting the positive change that I would like to see in response to the challenges that we face in our healthcare system. As a final-year medical student that will soon graduate as a medical doctor, it is important that I continuously equip myself with the knowledge, attitude and skills needed to excel as a healthcare professional in the South African setting."
Davies, who has always dreamt of becoming a medical doctor, and who hopes to specialise in surgery, said she was thrilled to be given the opportunity to take part in the initiative.
“It has been such a privilege to be part of this global student design sprint, which has already taught me a great deal and I am very excited for what lies ahead," she said.
“The pandemic revealed a major gap in our healthcare system - which was the lack of communication and connection between patients and their loved ones - and Quintin, the telepresence robot, provided a unique solution for how we could work towards solving this problem," Davies said.