OGDEN, Utah – Thanks to the generosity of the Rotary Club of Ogden and the Ogden Rotary Foundation, 11 computer science students at Weber State University are traveling to Ghana in March for an extended spring break. In the process, they hope to improve the efficiency of medical care in that nation.
In late January, the Ogden Rotary presented a total of $20,000 in funds raised to support two humanitarian efforts for Ghana. The majority of the donation, $16,000, will support a senior project undertaken by assistant computer science professor Rich Fry and 19 students in his capstone course. Another $4,000 will help transport an ambulance to Ghana.
Fry and Ogden Rotary Club president Kent Jorgenson traveled to Ghana in spring 2010 with a group of respiratory therapy students led by WSU’s Lisa Trujillo, an assistant respiratory therapy professor. Fry and Jorgenson saw firsthand some of the challenges and limitations facing the African nation. While visiting Korle Bu Teaching Hospital in the capital city of Accra, Fry was struck by the manually-intensive process for keeping medical records.
“Patients had a lot of paperwork to carry around to different buildings before ever receiving treatment,” Fry recalled. “Here’s a 1,700-bed facility that sees thousands of patients annually, and there is no way to access records – no computers. The roof is leaking, and water is dripping on all the hard-copy records.”
Fry saw a potential way to improve the system – software. On subsequent trips to Ghana last summer and fall, Fry did additional research and met with prospective clients who were apprehensive. They told Fry Americans come to the country all the time, make promises, and then abandon them. Hospital representatives insisted that any new system had to be sustainable. Fry promised that if the hospital would buy the computer equipment, he and his students would deliver the software and train staff on how to use it.
“Historically in our senior capstone course we create a hypothetical project where students build a software program, but never deliver it to a real client,” Fry said. “With the Ghana project we would have a real customer. We could start from the ground up and create a medical records software program. Given all the patient confidentiality issues in the U.S., this is a project that we could never do here.”
On the first day of class last fall, Fry gave students the choice of working on the Ghana project. “They jumped on it. I was surprised by the reaction,” he said.
Fry got the students working as a team, with himself as coach. The capstone course is designed to have students use all the skills they’ve learned over the past four years.
"We can make up a fictitious hospital, but working with a real client, a real scenario, the students see the importance of project management, and the need to communicate with one another,” Fry said. “They also see that things don’t always go according to plan.”
The physical distance and technological disparities between here and Ghana have presented challenges, especially in terms of communication.
“I flew to Ghana over Thanksgiving just to meet with the client,” Fry said. “I needed to make sure the client was ready. I told them ‘we’re coming back in four months — you need to be ready to go.’”
Fry is optimistic the groundwork is established. He and 11 of the 19 students in the class leave March 4 and will spend 15 days in Ghana. In addition to their work with the hospital, the group also will deliver a software system to a private medical school and spend some time teaching local youth how to use specific computer programs.
Throughout the process, Fry kept Jorgenson informed about the project and made a presentation to Rotary about the outreach efforts to Africa.
Jorgenson said the Rotary Club became excited about the international service project and wanted to help support it financially. The club spent last summer raising funds and awareness. Autoliv, working through Rotary, donated an additional $4,000 to support Trujillo’s efforts to ship an ambulance to Ghana, which will serve as a mobile health clinic.
“I’m proud of the club’s ability to generate this amount of funding in such tough economic times,” Jorgenson said. “Rotary saw value in building a whole medical system and the impact it would have.”
The project allows Fry, who has visited 42 countries, to combine his love of travel with his computer expertise. He said the experience has renewed his passion for teaching.
“This has never been done in computer science. Study abroad is easy to do in other disciplines, but for computer science I had to think outside the box,” Fry said.
The finished project will use open-source software, which can be taken to any
Third World country.
“I hope this will be the first phase in an ongoing relationship,” Fry said. “Once we’ve demonstrated our capability, I hope we can build on this to develop software for the hospital’s pharmacy and laboratory record keeping in the future.”
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