Executive Director, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)
By adapting medical advances and technology such as artificial intelligence, hybrid energy, and big data to respond to global health challenges, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) translates ideas into real action.
Through the newly-launched Transformational Investment Capacity (TIC) hub, emergency medical relief organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is reshaping humanitarian action by adapting 21st century technologies, because sometimes the simplest innovations can have the most impact in an emergency.
While MSF has been widely recognized for its emergency response in medical humanitarian aid for the last 50 years, the TIC was born out of a pressing need to transform the organization. Global challenges such as the climate crisis, unprecedented levels of migration and displacement, new patterns of disease outbreak, and a medical research and development system that doesn’t serve the needs of low- and middle-income countries required new thinking and innovative solutions.
By investing in the organization’s most promising innovations, the TIC hub brings together experienced frontline workers and experts with the ideas and passion to support communities, improve access to health care, and build capacity both now and in the future.
To date, the TIC has approved 68 incubator and large-scale projects. They range from adapting 21st century medical technologies like point-of-care ultrasound (POCUS) and artificial intelligence for low-resource settings where electricity and internet access remain a challenge, all the way to piloting a solid waste management program that supports a local community to turn recycling into an income-generating activity.
MSF’s executive director in Canada, Joseph Belliveau, who heads up the TIC Secretariat, knows first-hand the transformative impact that adapted innovations can have on the lives of millions of people around the world. “By bringing together innovators, frontline workers, and local communities, the TIC hub is at the heart of the work to build a responsive, resilient,
climate-smart organization from the ground up that sources, supports, and scales solutions for delivering urgent, independent, life-saving medical care today and into the future,” he says.
Learn about six urgent global challenges and the projects that are leveraging humanitarian innovations to solve them
Point-of-care ultrasound (POCUS) to improve access to maternal health care
The difficulty for many women in remote or unstable settings to access functioning hospitals has kept life-saving screening services out of reach for too long, but portable hand-held devices are offering new hope and better care. By using a simplified medical algorithm, POCUS improves diagnosis, treatment decisions, and the quality of care provided at the patient’s bedside, and equips and empowers frontline health workers with real-time, guided decision-making. POCUS technology has been implemented in more than 40 projects worldwide, including in conflict settings such as Yemen, where non-radiologists such as local nurses and midwives have received training.
Artificial intelligence for tuberculosis diagnostics
Tuberculosis (TB) is the world’s largest infection killer but the research and development for new, more effective diagnostics have been lacking for years. Diagnosing TB early is difficult because its symptoms can mimic those of common respiratory diseases. Cost-effective screening, specifically chest X-rays, has been identified as one way to improve the diagnosis process. However, experts aren’t always available to interpret results in the remote or unstable locations where MSF works. To that end, MSF has launched two pilot projects that use artificial intelligence for TB screening. The use of computer-aided detection for screening and triaging potential TB cases early has been a game-changer in reducing its prevalence in low-resource communities and will contribute to the eventual eradication of the disease.
Mobile outbreak units to investigate alerts and confirm epidemic outbreaks
During a suspected outbreak, time is of the essence and rapid turnaround for testing is critical for figuring out who has the disease or virus so they can be isolated and to stop transmission. During an outbreak in a low-resource or remote location, diagnostic capacity is often not available. Instead, the samples are sent to national reference laboratories, resulting in severe delays. The mobile lab concept has substantially sped up this process by bringing outbreak investigation and testing directly to outbreak sites, cutting turnaround times from a matter of several days to hours instead. The rapid set-up is a game-changer as it contains outbreaks sooner.
Solar energy to power health care
In four districts of Balochistan, Pakistan, MSF supports health facilities that provide care to more than 12,000 expectant mothers and approximately 10,000 children suffering from malnutrition each year. However, frequent power cuts and rising temperatures in the summertime make it difficult to maintain a cool temperature for patients, health workers, and medicines that require preservation. To address this, MSF has installed solar panel systems at health facilities in Dera Murad Jamali, Chaman, and Kuchlak. Supplemented by grid or generator electricity, these systems provide uninterrupted power for lighting, air conditioning, fans, and water pumping and cooling, while averting more than 50,000 kilograms of carbon emissions per year.
Air quality sensors to measure links between asthma and pollution
Over the last few years, asthma-related complaints have become more common in the MSF-supported Martissant emergency health centre in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. From 2019 to 2020, MSF observed a 25 percent increase in the number of asthmatic patients admitted. The reasons behind this increase have yet to be determined, but potential culprits include workplace exposures and irritants, exhaust from vehicles, emissions from the charcoal used in cooking, and more. A new project launched by MSF will install a weather station and air quality sensor in Port-au-Prince to help identify the factors leading to an increase of asthma patients at its facilities, enabling the organization to better understand and respond to the potential health impacts of environmental changes.
An environmental toolkit to transform MSF into a climate-smart organization
This toolkit provides a framework to help MSF offices and projects measure their carbon emissions and waste production, as well as to advise on possible mitigation activities. Pilot tests of the toolkit in five countries identified air transport of medical and other goods, personnel travel, and fuel use for generators as the most significant sources of carbon emissions. By mid 2021, MSF offices and medical programs in over 40 countries had measured their carbon emissions. Many have undertaken discussions on how to reduce these impacts most effectively.