Smart Pod’s versatility on display in Liberia

Designed as a treatment center that can be rapidly deployed for response to emergencies like the Ebola outbreak in Africa, the Smart Pod developed by Baylor Global Initiatives is now showing its versatility by being used for other aspects of patient care.

For patients who contracted the Ebola virus and survived, one side effect of the infectious disease is now coming to light – cataracts. Since the virus can still be present in the blood, before moving forward with cataract surgery, doctors must perform an eye tap procedure by extracting fluid from the eye to see if the virus is still active. In Liberia, this procedure is being done in the Smart Pod.

Dr. Sharmila Anandasabapathy unlocking the potential of the Smart Pod.

Dr. Sharmila Anandasabapathy unlocking the potential of the Smart Pod.

Smart Pod vision

The concept for the Smart Pod was developed by Dr. Sharmila Anandasabapathy, professor of medicine in gastroenterology and director of Baylor Global Initiatives, and her team in 2014 when Ebola was scaling up. The idea was to retrofit shipping containers into clinics for optimized patient and provider care and safety that could be used in the field in place of tents and other facilities that weren’t equipped appropriately to care for patients with infectious disease like Ebola. With grant funding from the USAID, the concept was turned in to reality. Read more and watch this video about the Smart Pod.

“The initial vision was for an off-grid, container-based ambulatory surgery and endoscopy unit but when Ebola erupted in 2014, we felt that we should pivot on this initial concept to address the ongoing crisis. We worked closely with USAID to adapt our initial concept and the architecture of the unit to communicable diseases,” Anandasabapathy said.

The pod offers many advantages, explained Sarah Michel, senior project manager for Baylor Global Initiatives. It can be easily closed and deployed – or redeployed – to wherever it’s needed most and, unlike tents used during disease outbreaks or in response to other disasters, it can withstand different weather conditions. It also means that resource poor countries do not have to build treatment facilities, which can take a lot of time, labor and materials and are often left unused when the outbreak is controlled.

In Liberia, approximately 20 patients had the eye tap procedure performed in the pod. Once it was confirmed that they were not infected with Ebola, they were moved to the main hospital for the cataract surgery. Moving forward, the pod will be used as an isolation unit for patients suspected of having tuberculosis. Since tuberculosis is a respiratory infection and can be spread by simply coughing, it is important to keep these patients in a separate area so others at the hospital are not infected.

Looking forward

Development of the pod is ongoing and technological improvements continue to be made. To help with new technology for the pod, the team at Baylor Global Initiatives enlisted the help of several departments at Baylor, including the Office of Research, the Baylor Licensing Group, the General Counsel’s Office and the Office of Information Technology.

“Some of the new technological innovations that we are working on installing in the pod include an application server, network, Wi-Fi and DVR camera system. The aim is to take all of these requirements and build an electronic pod that will go inside the physical pod,” said Brian McDaniel, lead infrastructure architect in the Baylor IT office.

McDaniel and his team also accounted for growth and scaling by using the “T-shirt approach,” which means that when the pods are deployed there is a choice of a small, medium or large e-pod to go along with it. He explained that in a lot of cases, financially, healthcare providers are will want start with the smallest and least costly e-pod. However, the architecture and design is such that they easily can go from small to medium or large as their operation grows.

He also said that, in the future, if thousands of pods are placed all over the globe, the data collected from them can be turned into a single source that healthcare providers can mine, allowing them to conduct predictive analytics and analyze what trends are for diseases and outbreaks using the new technology.

Team effort

The continued development of the Smart Pod is due in part to the innovative environment at Baylor College of Medicine, Michel said.

“It has been really great to work with people at Baylor who have this entrepreneurial spirit,” she said. “We have had the capacity to work collaboratively with each of these groups on a project that is not anybody’s normal, daily business. But because of the application and because of who the Smart Pod is touching, people feel really honored to work on this. It’s been great to have all of these different groups within Baylor collaborating and to see how easy the collaboration is.”

McDaniel echoes this sentiment. “We’ve all worked together to come up with a cohesive solution that benefits all of the groups and that extends out to our technology partners at Dell who provided the equipment we needed to build the new technology. I think a key part of this project is that on our own, none of us would have had the necessary capacity to see it to its completion but by working together we’ve all contributed in our own ways on achieving the overall vision of the pod.”

While one pod currently is in use for the medical procedures being done in Liberia, the larger goal is to mass produce the pods. The hope is that they will be used by organizations such as the UN Refugee Agency, Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders, occupational health for oil and gas companies and military use.

“A lot of these groups don’t necessarily have a great solution for their people on the ground so we see a lot of use cases for the pod, and they aren’t all disaster response,” Michel said.

-By Julia Bernstein