Auckland University News

Answering Pacific health care professionals’ calls for support

16 March 2021

“The nurses had no way of knowing if my nephew was improving or worsening.” Statements such as these have inspired the creation of Pacific Med Tech, a social venture that aims to support capacity building in biomedical engineering departments of hospitals in the Pacific.

Pacific Med Tech was established in March 2020 after its founders Janette Searle and Larissa Michelsen returned from a trip to the Pacific where they saw talented and dedicated medical professionals struggling to meet patient needs. Electrical engineer Charlotte’s story defines the issues involved. “My nephew was hospitalised in the intensive care unit (in the Pacific). When I went to visit him, I asked the nurse how he was doing, but the nurse told me they didn’t know as the ECG (electrocardiograph) machine was broken. I could see another ECG machine sitting unused in the ward and I asked why the nurses weren’t using that machine to check my nephew’s condition. The nurses said they were all broken. I tried to fix the machine but couldn’t. I asked my husband who is a mechanical engineer to help but he also couldn’t fix the machine. Without a trained technician the machines couldn’t be used”.

Pacific Med Tech’s solution to cases such as these is to empower hospital and health clinic staff to be able to fix broken equipment through supplying practical troubleshooting guides and other technical education opportunities. The intent of these trouble shooting guides, which are currently being tested, is to support biomedical capacity by providing basic trouble shooting guides for use with basic equipment in health clinics.

During scoping trips to the Solomon Islands and Tonga, Larissa and Janette met with staff from the Ministries of Health, doctors and nurses. Co-founder and Director of Technology Larissa says “The resounding commentary was the same ‘we know what we need, we just don’t have access to it’. Things as common as cables to plug in equipment.”

Medical professionals in the Pacific have many challenges. The World Health Organisation cites geographical spread, insufficient internet, extremely high operational costs and poor transport links as issues. Larissa and Janette established Pacific Med Tech to help enable others as it plays to their respective strengths and backgrounds in social entrepreneurship, business development and medical device engineering. Janette runs Take My Hands, a charitable trust which meets needs in the Pacific by sourcing good usable medical equipment here in New Zealand that won’t be used anymore and distributes it to the Pacific. Larissa has previously volunteered with the International Red Cross, developing prosthetics in Cambodia, and is a Product Development Engineer at Fisher and Paykel Healthcare. They met by chance, and their shared interests and ambitions turned into a professional partnership.

Pacific Med Tech started while Larissa was completing her Master of Engineering Studies, which meant they had the opportunity to enter into the University of Auckland’s business planning competition the Velocity $100k Challenge. Delivered by the Business School’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, their winning entry earned them a place in the University’s VentureLab incubator. Larissa says “When we won the social enterprise category of Velocity I was so excited, and relieved, because I knew the VentureLab programme which included 6 months of business mentoring was what we really needed to keep our momentum going and solidify our start-up. Ken Erksine, our mentor, has been great – very approachable and a terrific sounding board. The financial stipend from VentureLab has also been a total blessing as it allowed us the freedom to set-up our business and develop our first suite of medical equipment troubleshooting guides for nurses in the Pacific.”

The troubleshooting guides are a pivot from their initial intentions – setting up interns to work in the Pacific alongside biomedical engineering teams. Covid-19 massively disrupted Pacific Med Tech, but as the saying goes ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. Larissa says “Quite a lot of our plans from before the pandemic slowly got pushed into the ‘future’ pile. But it hasn’t been a bad thing for us, in that the world has become laser focused on healthcare and how important supply chain, knowledge sharing and infection control is.”

Next, Larissa and Janette are looking to launch a brand of commercial cleaning products called Pacific Clean which looks to use the ‘buy one, give one’ model. The range will include a hospital grade floor and surface cleaner that has the ability to kill Covid-19. Samples are currently being trialed in Niue and Samoa.

There may be a few more pivots to Pacific Med Tech as the global situation develops, however Janette and Larissa remain devoted to their long-term goals. Larissa says “It might take 15 years, but we are focused on the long game of helping to deliver more accessible healthcare in the Pacific.

Posted: Tue 16 Mar 2021