In the darkest days of the pandemic, researchers at the Universidad del Valle (Univalle) took on the challenge of making a new mechanical ventilator—but in the process, they developed a new and virtual way to train medical personnel.
Professor Jose Isidro Garcia, from the Bionovo research group from the engineering faculty at Univalle says this project initially aimed to design a mechanical respirator integrating the components used in the automotive industry to convert the respirators to use natural gas combustion, to help doctors on the front line of pandemic care.
"In the group we were sensitive to the problems generated in several regions of the country where, although they had mechanical ventilators, they lacked enough medical professionals trained in its use," the professor said, adding that mechanical ventilators require more specialized training than that received by a general practitioner.
And so began a new journey together with Univalle experts in education and medicine and engineering to create virtual learning environments in interaction with a remote laboratory in mechanical ventilators.
This initiative is the synergistic work of several Univalle research groups from the Faculties of Health and Engineering, such as: Univalle Group on Artificial Intelligence (GUIA); IVANES; the Logístics y Production research group; the Curriculum and Pedagogy in Higher Education Research Group (CURPES); and the Exercise and Cardiopulmonary Health research group (GIESC).
"As engineers, we have to learn to be sensitive to the problems of the environment and integrate those affected in the generation of a sustainable solution and not limit ourselves to presenting only a prompt solution," said Professor Garcia.
Virtual Education From a Physical Lab
Even before the pandemic, respiratory infections and respiratory diseases together cause more than 10% of patient mortality in Cali, Colombia.
Around the world, there are several projects to develop new ventilators and according to an industry report, the global market for mechanical ventilators generated $4.65 billion in 2020 and is projected to reach $18.63 billion by 2030.
Professor Garcia explained that these trends show there is a high demand in the market for a system that makes it easy to train health professionals in the use of mechanical ventilators in a variety of medical contexts.
A key co-researcher on the project, Gloria Isabel Toro Córdoba, an associate professor at Univalle's Faculty of Health and Director of New Technologies and Virtual Education (Dintev) and the South Regional Educational Innovation Center (CIER-Sur), explained that normally the training for professionals on ventilators is offered theoretically in the classroom and in-person practical exeercises at hospitals.
“However, due to the restrictions on access to practice sites and the requirement of physical distancing, face-to-face training became more difficult,” said Professor Toro, who has worked with Professor Garcia for several years on projects to do with telehealth and biomechanics.
The professor explained that the project's approach goes beyond simulation, because it integrates a laboratory equipped with a mechanical ventilator integrated with a patient emulator and a learning environment through the university's virtual campus.
"This allows a training scenario where the student can interact remotely with the ventilator, while being trained in the concepts of ventilation, function, operation, handling and programming of the ventilator," the professor said.
Interaction with the laboratory is done through a two-way interface: on the one hand, the teacher configures the patient emulator by defining the respiratory conditions of the case study, parameters, oxygen levels, pressure, etc; and on the other, the students interact with the ventilator to assess the patient.
The interface also includes a space for comments, clarifications by the teacher and feedback on the practice.
Univalle Creates New Opportunities
Professor Garcia explained that one of the most relevant impacts of this initiative is to be able to train doctors located in distant parts of the main cities.
“There are health care points here in Valle de Cauca where it takes 10 hours just to get to Cali, but with our solution, they can train virtually,” said the professor.
Another co-investigator, Profesor Andrés Fabricio Caballero Lozada, head of the department of anesthesiology at Univalle, explained that this type of initiative also brings benefits to the environment and a reduction in expenses in the education process.
"Once an infrastructure with a high rate of reuse, we can increase the user population," Professor Caballero stated, adding that it will also minimize the emission of greenhouse gases and the consumption of resources as a consequence of the travel demanded of both teachers and students during traditional training.
Professor Garcia explained that the project is also a demonstration of Univalle's collaboration with industry: in the first stage with companies based in the department of Valle del Cauca, such as ASA Industries, Talumm Organization, Metroflex SAS and Palmira Automotive Supplies and later they continued with a company from Palmira, Picaio.
"This is a solution from the University, but done in conjunction with companies, including Picaio, a company headed by Univalle graduates," said Professor Garcia.