“Every single day, I think about families that don’t have access to properly educated doctors in rural India,” says Viswa Challa, an undergraduate student in the College of Liberal Arts, studying management, public health, and computer science.
The problem of self-trained doctors or unqualified rural medical practitioners (RMPs) giving medical advice and treating patients is widespread throughout rural India. Private hospitals are too expensive. Governmental hospitals are too crowded. Viswa says, “People have to get any help they can.”
Viswa was born in India, and though he has been raised in the US since he was five, he has seen the devastating impacts of limited access to healthcare firsthand during his visits to India throughout the years.
“It was very real for me,” Viswa says, “and I dreamed of helping people in rural and distant villages that most of the world had forgotten about.”
Kiosks to the Rescue
In winter 2016, Viswa took a class through the Acara program, a program run by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment that seeks to address the world’s most urgent environmental and social problems. The class Viswa took focused on how students, as individuals and as members of a global village, can create enterprises that solve social or environmental problems in the world. It was there that Viswa dreamed up HealthSync.
Teaming up with two other CLA students, Andreas Hochrein (computer science major; economics and statistics minors) and Raoul Fernandes (statistics), and Raj Kumar from the College of Biological Sciences (neuroscience), they dreamed of creating and installing health-monitoring kiosks in remote Indian villages with low-income populations.
The villages would be identified by private and government hospitals that would choose to participate in the program. The kiosks would perform rudimentary examinations, such as measuring blood pressure, temperature, pulse, oxygen saturation, pain scale, etc.
The collected data would then be analyzed, and priority lists would be created based on urgency of need. Care would be coordinated through Indian hospitals who would use the lists to allocate resources where they are most needed.
It was a bold idea, but one with enough promise that Viswa and his team submitted it to the 2016 Acara Challenge, a competition that funds Acara projects. They impressed the judges enough to be awarded the international-division bronze and won a stipend to help make their big idea a reality.
An Interdisciplinary Team
The HealthSync team is now working on making the vision real. Raoul deals with data management and creating algorithms; Andreas is responsible for coding of the terminal, the integration of individual measurement units, and data storage; Raj figures out proper metrics for measurement and how to create a minimized model to get the best outcome; and Viswa serves as project manager.
His interdisciplinary CLA background, Viswa says, makes him “capable of interpreting the three different visions” that the team members have. His computer knowledge allows him to understand technical terms. His public health perspective helps him create culturally conscious questionnaires for people in rural India. And as a manager, he makes sure that “they all have what they need to be successful [and] feel comfortable working together.”
Viswa thinks it is combining the four of them together that “really works best.” He adds, “I’m really thankful to our team for working with me. . . for believing in me, and thinking this can be done.”
Just the Beginning
Viswa hopes that in the near future he can go back to India and work closely with RMPs “to understand more and more of what’s happening on the ground.” Understanding that, he thinks, “will help us learn how to change it for the better.”
He also looks forward to taking their project to the next level, knowing that the kiosks fill a gap, but don’t offer a permanent solution. “We need a more holistic solution,” he says.
“We want trained practitioners on the ground. They are the ones that make the final difference, the human contact. It is when you pair. . . human interaction with technology that we can see. . . growth.”