Students tackle health of world's poor with technology

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In many poor nations, health clinics have trouble treating patients because they can't easily tap into the expertise of doctors who are in distant hospitals.

Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Students in the accelerated master's program in electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, from left, Mark Pimentel, 21, Edna Lau, 20, and Gradon Kam, 21, competed in Microsoft's Imagine Cup competition in Seattle, Wash., on Friday . Their software project is a system that would allow clinics in developing nations to communicate by camera and text-equipped cell phones with major hospitals to do diagnoses and get medical advice.
Click photo for larger image.

If they send the patients, ill and feverish, on hours-long journeys to the hospitals, the doctors they need may not be there when they arrive.

Using cell phones and the Internet, three Carnegie Mellon University undergraduates have developed a system designed to overcome that problem.

Senior Mark Pimental, of New York City, and juniors Edna Lau and Gradon Kam, of Honolulu, Hawaii, all students in Carnegie Mellon's accelerated master's program in electrical and computer engineering, developed the health care software for this year's Imagine Cup software design competition sponsored by Microsoft Corp.

Now in its fourth year, the Imagine Cup invites student teams from around the world to develop projects based on an annual theme, using Microsoft software systems.

This year's theme is, "Imagine a world where technology helps us to live healthier lives." It attracted 65,000 students worldwide.

While the Carnegie Mellon team did not place in this year's U.S. finals on Friday, it was one of 13 teams that made it to the last round in Redmond, Wash. The winning team, from Virginia Commonwealth University, designed a project called PocketDoc that links doctors and patients through mobile devices and provides alerts on when medication needs to be taken.

Mr. Pimental was on a Carnegie Mellon team that placed second in the U.S. last year.

The winning team got $8,000 and a chance to compete in the world finals in Delhi, India, in August.

Mr. Pimental, 21, was so enthused about last year's competition that he persuaded fellow majors Mr. Kam, 21, and Ms. Lau, 20, to join him this year.

They agreed that tackling health care problems of poor people in developing nations would be their priority.

Mr. Pimental said he spent his spring breaks the last two years in Central America and the Caribbean, witnessing some of those problems firsthand.

Their project is based on the problems faced by impoverished patients in Haiti who are served by the Hopital Albert Schweitzer in Deschapelles, Haiti.

In some areas, Mr. Pimental said, "it takes patients six to eight hours to get to the hospital, and when they get there they're told the person they need to see isn't there."

The challenge is how to make those doctors available to patients in remote locations, and the answer the Carnegie Mellon team came up with was "smart cell phones" that can take pictures and send text messages.

Their demonstration project for the Imagine Cup was a simulated skin rash, in which a nurse at an isolated clinic could take a picture of the rash and send information about it to a specialist via cell phone, and get treatment advice in return.

The team also developed software to connect hospitals in developing nations on the Web so they could share information about the most effective treatments in places where modern equipment and sanitary conditions often don't exist.

A third part of the project developed software to help translate medical documents in English into local languages.

Ms. Lau said she was motivated to join the team partly by another project she was involved in at Carnegie Mellon that helped Ethiopian people learn about HIV by using interactive tablet PCs.

"Even if our solution might not be adopted right away," Mr. Pimental said, "we want to propose that this problem can be solved by technology. Raising awareness is one of the main goals."

Mr. Kam said he hoped their work would inspire other students to get involved in similar projects.

"I think a lot of us tend to get lost in our studies," Mr. Kam said.

"A lot of students tend to look toward solving problems they have rather than solving the problems the world has."

Mark Roth can be reached at or at 412-263-1130.


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