Engineers from Guy’s & St. Thomas’, UK delivering training at Ndola Central Hospital, Zambia. (Credit: Howard Bland)

Engineers from Guy’s & St. Thomas’, UK delivering training at Ndola Central Hospital, Zambia. (Credit: Howard Bland)

The Tropical Health and Education Trust (THET) is a global health organization that works to strengthen healthcare services in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia by supporting partnerships between partner institutions and United Kingdom-based health professionals. It’s based in London and has offices in Somaliland and Zambia.

Among other initiatives, THET helps partner institutions create curricula for biomedical engineering training programs. We recognize how critical biomedical engineers are to a functioning health system – they’re unsung heroes in global health, really – and are excited to have Anna Worm, a healthcare technology advisor for THET (and a biomedical engineer herself) discuss its program in Zambia in a guest post for us. 

Starting A Biomedical Engineering Technologist Diploma Program in Zambia

By Anna Worm

THET Photo 1

For the past two years, THET has worked in partnership with Northern Technical College (NORTEC), a leading technical college in Ndola, Zambia, to set up a three-year full-time Biomedical Engineering Technologist (BMET) diploma program – the first of its kind in the country. (Read the journal article on THET’s work with NORTEC here)

No formalized BMET training previously existed in Zambia, and after assessing the status of medical equipment nationwide, the need for training BMETs was clear. THET has supported NORTEC to create a curriculum that fits NORTEC’s academic requirements and that serves to create a stable buildup of professional BMETs for Zambia’s future.

The curriculum writing process engaged a wide variety of stakeholders in Zambia and abroad, including a number of biomedical engineering experts. The curriculum was approved by Zambia’s technical and vocational training authority in late 2011 and commenced in September 2013.

Writing a comprehensive, inclusive BMET curricula isn’t easy. One of the major difficulties is finding an appropriate balance between academic requirements necessary to graduate (under the purview of the Ministry of Education) and the day-to-day work that hospitals and health centers require (under the purview of the Ministry of Health).

With only so many hours in a day, training programs must also find a balance between classroom learning (mathematics, basic engineering skills, English, etc.) and hands-on, equipment-specific learning. I personally believe that healthcare technology management (making inventories, keeping track of service manuals, etc.) should be included in BMET programs, too. Without all three components, it will be difficult to truly build the next generation of biomedical engineering technologists.

So we discuss, struggle, have fun and try to find a balance that satisfies all parties.

Next: running a program. Recruiting students, finding staff, covering general engineering courses, and reserving teaching space are normally pretty simple. The real challenges come with recruiting staff for equipment-specific courses (there are few biomedical engineers in-country) and equipping the school workshop with working medical equipment.

So “Train-the-Trainer” programs should be created and funds should be found. This is an ongoing process. Many of my colleagues have been on missions to teach courses with hardly any equipment in the classroom. It’s far from an ideal situation, but waiting to start a program until everything is in place is not always realistic.

We then start teaching. The first year is mainly spent teaching general courses, and we make field trips to hospitals so that students can touch the real equipment.

Then one day, we see our students graduate. I’ve seen my students graduate in Rwanda. I saw the change from timid – located in a container next to the morgue – car mechanics who in three years’ time became maintenance managers of their hospitals, creating and keeping an up-to-date administration, communicating with their hospital directors, receiving respect from their colleagues, and being listened to at the Ministry of Health. Break down rates are dramatically going down and there are spare parts stocks. My graduates are saving lives everyday.

It is possible — and isn’t that cool!

Anna is a Dutch BioMedical Engineer (MSc) and graduated from Delft University of Technology in 2007. She has worked in Ghana and Rwanda on biomedical engineering training programs and currently lives in New Caledonia.

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