Building Biomedical Engineering Capability in Rwanda

Written by Ram Ramabhadran, PhD

I was offered an opportunity to teach biomedical engineering June 9-20, 2014 in Kigali, Rwanda by Engineering World Health (EWH), a Durham, NC-based non-profit organization. I taught in Honduras last year under the aegis of EWH, making this my second trip on behalf of EWH. This trip differed in many ways from the Honduras trip in terms of the mission, the trainees, the language, and the country. Unlike the mission in Honduras where I trained working biomedical technicians and their instructors as a part of their continuing education, the Rwanda mission was primarily to “train the trainers”, about 12 members of the electrical engineering faculty at the Integrated Polytechnic Regional Center (IPRC), Kicukiro Campus in Kigali. The goal was to introduce these well-versed electrical engineers to biomedical engineering so as to enable them to teach post-high school students enrolled at IPRC, as a means of building long-term biomedical engineering capability of Rwanda.Ram teaches BMETs

In Honduras, both instructors and students participated in my classes; my “students” were practicing biomedical technicians ranging in ages from 20’s into the 60’s. Although EWH wanted a similar mix in Rwanda, there was justifiable reticence on the part of the instructors to participate in classes with their students who were fresh high school graduates enrolled in the polytechnic school. Thus, I taught twelve engineering faculty, including one woman, all with Master’s degrees, mostly electrical engineers, but also a smattering of mechanical and civil engineers. This was a very smart group that was well-grounded in engineering principles of their field. Most spoke English with varying degrees of fluency so that I could teach in English without the need for translation.

I lectured mainly on clinical chemistry instrumentation and a bit on safety. I was often asked questions that I had no immediate answers to, but I did always answer at the beginning of class the next day—thus I was challenged and I enjoyed it. I lectured 4 days each of the first and the second weeks. During the lectures, the EWH in-country coordinator brought a spectrophotometer, a microscope, and a coulter counter to the class room. As is often the case, taking apart the instruments elicited more excitement than anything that had happened prior. I did manage to slip in a lecture on leadership and organization titled “Working in resource limited situations” that I felt would be beneficial towards addressing the tardiness that is an endemic characteristic of all parts of the developing world.

IPRC Trainers class

Although the practical aspect of the training was limited during the class lectures, this lack was amply made up through the hospital tours that the class went on during the last two days of the training. We visited two hospitals and a medical school microbiology teaching lab. First was Kanumbe, a military hospital which also treats civilians. Here, we visited the new biomedical workshop where the team was able to tinker with some of the non-functional equipment that was in storage, such as biosafety hood, a capnometer, defibrillators, etc. Following this brief stop, we visited the hospital clinical chemistry labs as well as the imaging labs (MRI, CT, etc.) where the students got excellent exposure to the equipment in action. That afternoon, after a group buffet lunch, we visited the microbiology teaching lab of the medical school, Kigali Health Institute. Here the students were provided an excellent exposure by the staff to the principles and equipment used in microbiology, pathology, and light microscopy. The next day, we visited the King Faisal Hospital and were provided an extensive tour not only of the clinical and microbiology labs and the X-ray unit, but also of the surgical sterilization operation and of the physical plant that supported the hospital which contained centralized biomedical equipment such as the oxygen concentrator that supplied the whole hospital. These visits were very well received by the class.

During these animated hospital visits, it dawned on me that the rag-tag tardy bunch I had encountered early on had matured into an interested and curious group participating in animated discussions and taking pictures of every instrument they saw. Looks like we had finally bonded and this brought me great satisfaction regarding the success of my mission. In keeping with this change, we ended the session on last evening at an open bar, somewhat akin to a German “Biergarten”, with beer, banter and bonhomie.

Looking back, this was an excellent experience for me both to teach and learn and to serve global health needs towards a healthier world.

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