H.E.L.P.'s International Telemedicine Humanitarian Emergency Mobile Medical Clinic Network: An Interview with Randy Roberson

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"What we have done is we've deployed and completed the first of what we're calling a "doc in a box". It's a 20 foot cargo container, shipping container, like you see on ships going overseas. On the outside, it looks pretty much like any other container. On the inside is a complete medical clinic, complete with a lot of different telemedicine equipment and satellite uplink gear that enables us to bring a patient wherever this is dropped off, anywhere in the world."

In this week's interview with a N2Y2 Featured Project, I talk with Randy Roberson, the founder and president of H.E.L.P. or Humanitarian Emergency Logistics and Preparation. During the second NetSquared conference in May 2007, 21 projects that use the web for social impact presented their work and received feedback and support from the NetSquared Community. H.E.L.P.'s International Telemedicine Humanitarian Emergency Mobile Medical Clinic Network was one of the Featured Projects.

You can listen to the interview with Randy on the NetSquared Podcast and read interviews with other Featured Projects on the Net2 blog.

Randy Roberson: My name is Randy Roberson. I'm the founder and president of H.E.L.P. which is an acronym that stands for Humanitarian Emergency Logistics and Preparedness. We're a 501(c)(3) non-profit tasked with international humanitarian and disaster relief projects.

This actually goes back over 10 years to when I was in my first career, which was as a broadcaster. I had a talk show that I hosted for about 10 years. I had a gentleman brought in on the show one day as a guest by the name of Dr. Larry Ward, who was the founder of Food for the Hungry. Before that he was the VP overseas director for World Vision, and Ronald Regan named him White House ambassador to the hungry world under his administration.

I took an interest in Dr. Ward's story and the integrity in which he moved. I was fascinated by his story and became friends with him. The next thing I knew I was working with some of the three million street people, on the streets of Calcutta, with him. It was there that I realized that this is really what I was meant to do and as such, dropped a broadcasting career, dropped a real estate business, and have been pursuing this ever since.

I went through an eight year mentorship with Dr. Ward, and when he passed away a few years ago, I went on to incorporate and found H.E.L.P. Which, again, was founded in November of 2005 and we've been functioning under that entity ever since. We have on-going operations right now in India, and we also have projects this year scheduled for Kenya, and Darfur, and, also, the Philippines. Our primary focus is in telemedicine, mobile medical clinics, and water purification projects.

Britt Bravo: Where did the idea for H.E.L.P.'s International Telemedicine Humanitarian Emergency Mobile Medical Clinic Network come from?

RR: What I was trying to do, to begin with, was how to go into an area and do a needs analysis, looking for what areas of need were going unmet by other organizations and then setting up programs to meet those needs. Invariably, in every disaster that I've been in, from India, to Bangladesh, Korea, Kosovo, Colombia, Turkey, Mozambique, South Africa, El Salvador, Thailand, etc., there's always been a need right after disasters for mobile medical clinics, and always a need for water purification projects. So we've actually been doing mobile medical clinics for about 10 years.

The idea of incorporating telemedicine into this really had its genesis during the December 2004 tsunami in South East Asia. One of our board members, Dr. Alan Michaels, also has been quite involved in telemedicine and helped to establish telemedicine as something that we began testing with our overseas operations, and had great success with that.

We've had a significant amount of interest expressed by hospitals in India, various organizations in Africa, and the United States, and in the United Arab Emirates. We actually have some programs that we're being asked to become involved with in Iraq, as well. We have a growing network of hospitals and physicians who are, not only donating their time, but also their resources and helping us in times of disaster or in areas of significant humanitarian need.

BB: Can you give an example of how the Network has or will create positive change?

RR: Sure. There's a couple of things that come to mind. First of all, our projects in South East Asia, and in India, where I'm out a nine hour train ride from the nearest airport, and uplinking via a small BGAN satellite uplink unit attached to a laptop with some medical peripheral devices, I'm uplinking from a small grass hut village, and doctors back here in Arizona are taking that signal and being able to see and hear and talk through interpreters to victims in this relief camp, hear the digital heart and lung sounds, etc., and being able to make diagnosis, and help with how to treat these people in a place where typically they get no medical attention.

A better example, and more recently, we were just involved here in the last couple of weeks, on July 23, 24, and 25, with a federal disaster drill called Operation Golden Phoenix. And this was in California and Arizona. The idea was to simulate a massive earthquake in Los Angeles, and, theoretically, how would emergency crews manage the migration of people trying to evacuate from such a catastrophe, especially with the huge numbers of population that there are in the LA area. Again, many of these people were expected to evacuate to Phoenix, thus the term Operation Golden Phoenix.

What we have done is we've deployed and completed the first of what we're calling a "doc in a box". It's a 20 foot cargo container, shipping container, like you see on ships going overseas. On the outside, it looks pretty much like any other container. On the inside is a complete medical clinic, complete with a lot of different telemedicine equipment and satellite uplink gear that enables us to bring a patient wherever this is dropped off, anywhere in the world.

The patient can go inside, and via satellite, doctors around the world can see all kinds of digital imagery from ultrasound and digital X-ray, to EKG, ear, nose, and throat scopes, and many different types of tools that you would normally see in a hospital or a clinic, we can connect via satellite so that doctors in this network around the world can help us in times of need and in places of great need, through placement of these clinics in various locations around the world.

We now have, again, people who are wanting significant numbers of these in Africa, and in Iraq, and in India, and different places, so that this is a network that's growing constantly, both on the need end as well as on the facilitation end of doctors and hospitals. And it's beginning to grow significantly on the funding and philanthropic end as well.

BB: What's the next step for the network? What are its goals and challenges?

RR: The next step right now is we've been working with some people who have been helping us to develop more of a, badly needed, updated Web 2.0 technology website, to be able to facilitate not only volunteer doctors' and hospitals' connection with people in need when we're in the field, and a way, via the Web, that they can make that connection, but also a way that the public can also link and see a live blog, see pictures and video from the field, and see where their donations are actually making an impact in these various places in the world, all live via the Web.

So we basically have a few different hubs that we're working on, one of which would be the public end, where the public is enabled to see what's going on and become a part of that. Then we have the medical end, the telemedicine end, where they're enabled.

And then we also have a corporate end, where corporate sponsorship can get involved and can bring in their employees and staff in a supporting way as well, where they can track their own contributions to the cause and be able to designate where they would like their support to go to, and actually have their own corporate branding placed on their support so that, in essence, their employees can log on and, if this is XYZ corporation, they can see what XYZ corporation is doing to help in the disaster in whatever the location is around the world.

So, the next step is to finish building all of that and get more people involved in helping us to do that.

BB: What was the positive impact for the Network of going to the NetSquared Conference?

RR: Well, there were really many positive benefits of getting involved in the NetSquared Conference. If I were to pick just the two greatest, they would have to be the significant networking opportunities with other nonprofits and foundations, and then the refining process the entire competition forced us to focus on.

First, the chance to talk with other groups and hear what they were working on and discuss ways in which we could possibly help each other down the road is very much what our organization is all about.

Likewise, visiting with representatives from foundations, many of whom have the organizational interest in coming alongside agencies such as ours, was a real privilege. Anyone that's worked around foundations knows that it's always a tremendous benefit to have contacts within the foundation prior to submitting a grant request. So, from that standpoint, that was great.

And then, secondly, the format of the event forced us to try to communicate our overall purpose in only one 30-second elevator pitch. As our overall efforts are very complex, and my background in broadcasting makes me far too verbose, it's far too easy for me to think that we need to initially share our entire story with people.

Being forced to present it in a very structured fashion, although very difficult, was something that makes us better at communicating our story to everyone else. So, this may sound very simplistic, but it was a very valuable lesson learned, and we're happy to have been led through the process by a great bunch of people.

BB: How can listeners help to move your work forward?

RR: We have some really bright minds that are currently helping us to build a badly needed Web 2.0 portal, and we need to find a few more. It's a new site that will have three main hubs: for telemedicine, for public support, and for corporate support, as well as a method by which our books will soon be available to be reviewed online 24/7.

As most of our fundraising is designated for a specific focus, we really struggle to find the funding we need to build the type of Web platform necessary to take on the global needs that we focus on. The hospitals and physicians, literally around the world, are beginning to come to the table, as are various governmental and corporate players.

And we need some more brilliant tech minds who want to help with this project, while at the same time knowing that their philanthropic involvement in this effort would, no doubt, open some other doors for them down the road as well. Likewise, we're looking for some more foundations who have an interest in international humanitarian aid, telemedicine, and efforts to engage the public to better understand and help people in need, both here in the United States and around the globe.

BB: Is there anything else you want people to know about the network?

RR: Well, I guess if there was something that we wanted people to know more about it's the work that is growing, really, at amazing speed.

If you look at our website, at disasterlogistics.org, you'll see a downloadable report, released just this week from Arizona State University. It includes recent photos of our mobile clinic, and how we deployed them during a civil military disaster exercise for California and Arizona last week. And it will also offer a good look at what we have done, are doing, and the ongoing collaborations that will take us into the future.

We're always looking for more volunteers and people who want to make a difference in the lives of hurting people around the world. Our plan this year includes projects in India, the Philippines, Kenya, Darfur, and other locations in Africa, and we're also being invited to work in Iraq and other Middle East locations. With a little additional help from tech partners and foundation support, and volunteers, we'll be able to make a huge impact on the world's massive numbers of people who are suffering every day.