Building Biomedical Engineering Capacity through Educational Partnerships

October 17, 2017

BME's Monty Reichert discusses the value of international educational partnerships in a two-part editorial in the Annals of Biomedical Engineering

 

Duke and Makerere BME students during the Spring Break trip to Uganda earlier this year.

Duke and Makerere BME students during the Spring Break trip to Uganda earlier this year.

This feature was originally published by the Duke Global Health Institute

Engagement with international partners is one of the foundations of global health. This engagement can take many forms, such as collaborating on research, providing healthcare or developing educational partnerships.

Although less frequently pursued in today’s academic landscape, educational partnerships between U.S. institutions and institutions in low- and middle-income countries have the potential to be strategic, mutually beneficial ventures for global health, engineering, medicine and other academic programs.

Master of Science in Global Health alumna Brittany Ploss ’16 and William Reichert, professor of biomedical engineering and global health, are the lead authors of a recent two-part editorial in the Annals of Biomedical Engineering that highlights the value of international educational partnerships for medical device design.

EDITORIAL SHOWCASES BIOMEDICAL ENGINEERING PARTNERSHIPS

The articles emphasize the critical need for robust, low-cost health technology solutions in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), in contrast with the shortage of biomedical engineers in this region. In fact, 68 percent of SSA countries have only one or less biomedical engineers per million people.

Part I catalogs bachelor’s level degree-granting biomedical engineering (BME) programs and BME professional societies in SSA. In Part II, the authors make a case for BME educational partnerships between U.S. and SSA institutions, highlighting several successful partnerships and providing helpful tips for institutions that may be considering establishing such a program.

WHAT’S IN IT FOR THE PARTNERS?

According to Reichert, educational partnerships in biomedical engineering offer significant mutual benefits that go beyond the sharing of educational resources and teaching practices across institutions.

Through these programs, U.S. students and faculty who are interested in designing medical devices for use in low-resource settings can learn about the needs, challenges, assets, capacity and culture of the country of the partnership. This knowledge can facilitate more culturally appropriate design.

These educational partnerships also give students a broader perspective on innovation as they come to understand that expensive, resource-demanding technological solutions are often not workable in low- and middle-income countries. Designing biomedical solutions with resource constraints in mind fosters students’ creativity and resourcefulness.

“Designing devices for the U.S. or European markets uses a very different skillset than a device that can be implemented globally,” said Ploss. “Encouraging students in the U.S. to think more broadly about where many of their devices will end up can help universities develop more sustainability-minded engineers.”

And in addition to these more practical benefits, Reichert says, these programs offer a mechanism not only for facilitating collaboration but also for building personal connections and establishing cross-cultural friendships.

“When people with mutual interests become friends, magic can happen,” notes Reichert.

BME PARTNERSHIP BETWEEN DUKE AND MAKERERE UNIVERSITY

One example of international educational collaboration highlighted in the article is Duke’s BME partnership with Makerere University (MUK) in Kampala, Uganda—one of DGHI’s priority partners. Reichert and BME chair Ashutosh Chilkoti spearheaded development of this program after Reichert spent the 2014-2015 academic year as a Fulbright Scholar teaching at MUK.

This partnership, which has received generous support from many areas within Duke, includes two undergraduate design classes taught to Duke and MUK students and a graduate program in BME that spans the two universities.

In the design classes—jointly taught by Reichert and Robert Ssekitoleko, lecturer in biomedical engineering at MUK—students from both universities collaborate to solve a healthcare-related problem for a Ugandan client. For the graduate program, Ugandan biomedical engineering students spend two semesters at Duke taking classes, then return to Uganda for their dissertation.

Educational partnerships like this, says Reichert, hold the potential to transform the mindset behind Sub-Saharan BME programs. “Historically in Sub-Saharan Africa, the primary role of many biomedical engineers has been to maintain and fix donated high-tech medical equipment, but they’re capable of much more,” he said.

“These collaborations can help programs, students and key stakeholders in partner countries expand their vision of what biomedical engineers can do. In these countries, there’s a desperate need to build capacity to prepare engineers to take an inventive, creative approach to addressing health care needs in their communities.”  - Monty Reichert 

Ssekitoleko concurs that the DUKE-MUK BME collaboration has broadened students’ perspectives and fostered long-lasting friendships. In addition, he said, “it’s led to an improved local perception of BME and has helped provide access to Duke facilities, international awards and funding for student idea prototyping.” Ssekitoleko also cited joint faculty grant proposals and enhanced local staff skills as other beneficial outcomes of the partnership.

TIPS FOR ESTABLISHING EDUCATIONAL PARTNERSHIPS

In Part II, the authors—including faculty from a number of U.S. and African universities—offer ten recommendations for institutions seeking to initiate educational collaborations with Sub-Saharan partners. Recognizing that establishing these relationships requires investment of time and money, they share their recommendations (summarized below) in order of increasing effort and cost:

  1. Make existing course materials available.
  2. Use distance learning technology to offer classes at both institutions.
  3. Offer existing or new online courses that cover priority BME topics.
  4. Start an Engineering World Health (EWH) chapter at the partner location that links with an EWH chapter at one’s own university.
  5. Bring BME students from the partner institution to one’s own university through existing “research experience for undergraduates” programs.
  6. Build in student visits to the partner institution around a course or internship in which students at both institutions participate.
  7. Work with the partner institution’s teaching staff to revise BME curriculum if needed.
  8. Bring students from the partner institution to study longer-term at one’s own university.
  9. Establish a design program that takes co-originated ideas from concept to prototype.
  10. Build research collaborations that address problems that are relevant to the partner institution.

Ssekitoleko adds that faculty exchanges, for example through the Fulbright Fellowship program, and joint grants co-led by faculty at the partner institutions can deepen and enhance collaboration. He also encourages faculty involved in these partnerships to engage a wide range of local and international stakeholders to contribute towards building the BME field.

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