ECE Team Installs Prototype for Text Message-based Health Communication in Waslala

In the United States, it’s easy to take text messaging for granted – but in the remote villages of Waslala, Nicaragua, text messaging may have the power to save lives. Dr. Pritpal Singh, Professor and Chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, leads a team of ECE faculty and students who, with collaborators from the Villanova College of Nursing, are working to improve access to health care for villagers who may live a day’s journey from the nearest hospital.

“Our solution leverages the existing wireless infrastructure located in Waslala and the talent of community health workers who support these rural villages,” says Dr. Singh. “We want to connect the community health workers with trained hospital staff more quickly and effectively to improve patient care.”

Text messaging offers a low-cost, effective way for community health workers to contact trained hospital staff several hours away for real-time input on patient needs and assistance with diagnoses and treatments. Following an initial assessment in May, a team of ECE faculty, undergraduate, and graduate students designed a text message-based system that could be carried by the local GSM wireless network and be used to send important patient data to the hospital’s computer system.

Over Fall Break, Dr. Singh; Dr. Sarvesh Kulkarni, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering; and Brendan McCoy ECE ‘11 returned to install the prototype system, which requires locally-based cell phones, a server connection, and reliable Internet service for data transmission.

After installing the system, the team tweaked the coding involved to ensure compatibility with Nicaragua’s private IP address system and made adjustments to improve the available Internet connection. ECE students also developed an instructional manual to help train the four community health workers selected to pilot the program and outfitted them with solar chargers for the phones.

To test the system, the nursing contingent trained community health workers to take blood pressure readings and conduct baby measurements (head circumference, length, etc.) that could be sent via text message to the main hospital. The nursing team included Dr. Ruth McDermott-Levy, Assistant Professor; Rebecca LaMarca ’11; and Fruna Lara Vaamonde '11, who also served as translator.

The system was running effectively when the team left Waslala. Next steps include setting up a Villanova-based server for remote access to data and troubleshooting capabilities. In March, the team will return to Waslala to train more community health workers, begin upgrading systems, and develop a plan for back-up power supply.

ECE team installing prototype in Waslala
ECE team installing prototype in Waslala
ECE and Nursing team training community health workers to use text system
ECE and Nursing team training community health workers to use text system