When visiting a hospital in the US, you assume your doctor will have accurate records of your medical history and know the best treatment for your condition. But in underdeveloped countries like Kenya, medical records are often nonexistent or kept on handwritten notecards. In these areas doctors do not have internet to learn about advances in medical care.
Deborah Theobald, mother of five and founder of Vecna Cares Charitable Trust, works to develop and deploy health-care-information technology in developing areas of the world. Theobald was awarded the annual Computing that Serves Award by the BYU Department of Computer Science on November 8, 2018, for her contributions to healthcare information systems.
Theobald earned her BS in Aerospace Engineering from MIT followed by a master’s with an emphasis in space robotics from University of Maryland’s Space Systems Lab. She founded Vecna Cares in 2008 when a Ugandan district leader approached Theobald looking for partners in the US willing to contribute to health clinics. “I thought, ‘you know what, absolutely.’ At that point I didn’t know exactly what, but I knew there was something I could do,” Theobald said.
Theobald went on to found Vecna Cares, which combines health technology and robotics to increase access to reliable medical records in underdeveloped countries. In these areas, district clinics may close down for weeks or even months to fill out paper reports of patient records by hand, leaving patients without access to medical care.
Vecna has three areas of focus: software, hardware, and services. One of the largest obstacles Vecna faced was the challenge to create “robust, go-anywhere” hardware. Many locations throughout Africa do not have access to power or internet to update records and aggregate data. Vecna developers created the solution, the CliniPAK7, a 12” X 12”X 4” box which can be powered by a 12-volt car battery or by solar or regular power. The CliniPAK7 provides instant connectivity and real-time data sharing. In addition, the PAK can provide power off the grid to clinics to provide lighting at night and complete other tasks.
Since creating durable hardware, Vecna Cares integrated its work with several other nonprofit medical record sources, including dhis2, Bahmni, OpenMRS and Commcare. Vecna currently has forty-five clinics with cliniPAKS. Theobald shared that Vecna would like to take this model from district to district in Kenya and continue expanding into other areas. Future projects include cloud hosting, integration with HIIS, data migration, and mobile app development.
For Theobald, putting her talents to use in serving others has meant truly seeing the needs of individuals living in areas of the world where medical technology is underdeveloped or nonexistent. Referring to the story of the Savior and wealthy young man in Mark chapter ten, Theobald feels that we should focus first on seeing those in need as they truly are.
“We often focus on the point at which Jesus says sell all your things and give to the poor and the rich man is sad and turns away… but it could be that at that point the rich person never saw [the poor],” Theobald said. “There are times that we see things but we don’t really see them. When you actually really see a need, it is really hard to turn away.”
She urged students to find occasion to really see opportunities around them, and not only to see but to act.
“Love’s labor has merit alone, but we also love to measure positive impacts!” Theobald said, referencing the hymn “Have I Done Any Good in the World Today?” “There is a language the nonprofit world speaks. There’s output, outcome, and impact.”
Theobald urged students to see needs around them and identify others who can help take on difficult problems.
“Create sustainable frameworks for others to bring their talents and resources for good,” Theobald said. “I have met people all over the world who are good and want to make the world a better place. It has given me faith that we can do good and have an impact.”