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Good for Santa Barbara 2018: Noozhawk's 3rd Annual report on Nonprofits and Philanthropy
Sponsored by Montecito Bank & Trust

Goleta Nonprofit Uses Advanced Technology to Aid Areas of World Lacking Medical Care

World Telehealth Initiative is leveraging hardware and network created by InTouch Health while partnering with Direct Relief

Yulun Wang, founder, chairman and chief innovation officer of Goleta-based InTouch Health standing in company’s Innovation Center. Click to view larger
The World Telehealth Initiative is the brainchild of Yulun Wang, founder, chairman and chief innovation officer of Goleta-based InTouch Health, seen here in the company’s Innovation Center. He formed the nonprofit to leverage his company’s advanced medical technology in the service of the world’s most medically underserved communities (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)
Esperanza at a medical clinic in Malawi. Click to view larger
Among those benefitting from the World Telehealth Initiative is Esperanza, seen here at a clinic in the southeast African nation of Malawi. She came to seek treatment for a fistula suffered while laboring for days with her first child, who was stillborn. (Sharon Allen / World Telehealth Initiative photo)

Sharon Allen’s voice quavers as she shares the traumatic tale of a young, pregnant woman in Malawi, a nation in southeast Africa that is one of the world’s least-developed countries.

Sitting outside a coffee shop in Santa Barbara on a recent sunny afternoon, Allen is literally a world away, in every respect, from the desperate place inhabited by 19-year-old Esperanza.

But Allen has a daughter the same age as Esperanza, and the ordeal experienced by the diminutive Malawi woman with the big smile tugs at her heart strings.

While the young mother-to-be’s story is almost unimaginable to anyone with First World sensibilities, it lies at the heart of Allen’s current mission and passion as executive director of the nascent World Telehealth Initiative.

The brainchild of Yulun Wang — founder, chairman and chief innovation officer of Goleta-based InTouch Health — the World Telehealth Initiative is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that was formed this year to leverage some of the latest and most advanced medical technology available in the service of the world’s most medically underserved communities.

The World Telehealth Initiative — WTI, for short — makes use of sophisticated hardware and an unparalleled world-wide, cloud-based network to link First World physicians to some of the planet’s most health-challenged places. Doctors are able to use the system to communicate and interact in real time with medical personnel and patients anywhere around the globe that has an internet connection.

There are an estimated 9,000 physicians already trained to use the InTouch technology, Wang noted, and many of them are eager to volunteer their services to benefit medically impoverished areas of the world.

                                                                 •        •        •

Allen recounted how Esperanza was expecting her first child with her husband in 2017. She labored for two days at home without being able to deliver the baby.

She knew she needed to get to a clinic that was many miles away, but the $70 cost to be driven was well beyond what she and her husband could afford.

Instead, she opted to pay $5 to make the trek on a bicycle.

“So Esperanza, 19 years old, laboring for the first time, she hired a bike, and she was on the bike for six hours, in labor, en route to the clinic,” Allen said. “Then she gets there, and they were able to give her pain medications, and she labors for two more days.

“And then she delivers a stillborn child and is sent home.”

Tragically, what Esperanza returned to her village with instead of a baby was a fistula, an injury caused by the abnormally long labor. It’s a condition that is almost unheard of in developed nations, but tragically common in places such as Malawi.

Sharon Allen, executive director of the World Telehealth Initiative, with Esperanza. Click to view larger
Sharon Allen, executive director of the World Telehealth Initiative, with Esperanza, a patient at a clinic in Malawi served by the organization. (World Telehealth Initiative photo)

“With this prolonged labor, it damages the tissues in such a way that there’s a hole that either leaves them leaking urine or feces — or both — forever,” Allen explained.

“It would be bad enough here,” she added, “ but they don’t even have sanitary supplies. They can’t even stay hygienic and sanitary.

“We think of it as modern-day leprosy,” she added. “Their husbands usually leave them. They’ve just had a stillborn child, so they have that trauma. They cannot go to work. They don’t even go to church.

“They’re leaking, there’s odor. It’s horrendous.”

Esperanza’s fistula was doubly bad — she had holes in both her bladder and her rectum, meaning she was leaking both urine and feces.

Fistula is a condition that afflicts an estimated 2 million women in Africa alone, primarily due to the fact that C-sections — which would eliminate the extended labors that cause them — are mostly unavailable.

“A lot of these women, they live in remote places, they live in the bush, and it’s so humiliating, they go into hiding,” Allen said. “They don’t say, oh, I have a fistula. They don’t even know what it is.

“Esperanza, 19 years old, she says, ‘I couldn’t understand why I was bewitched.’ She couldn’t get what she had done to deserve this condition. And she’s 19, and this is her life.”

Esperanza and Sharon Allen using InTouch Health’s technology to discuss her medical care in Malawi. Click to view larger
Esperanza and Sharon Allen using InTouch Health’s technology to discuss her medical care in Malawi. (Sharon Allen / World Telehealth Initiative photo)

 •        •        •

While people in Santa Barbara County may occasionally grumble about delays in getting a medical appointment, most could not fathom the dangerously dire situation in Malawi and many other developing countries.

The United States has roughly one physician for every 380 residents, Allen noted, while in Malawi, it is one doctor for every 55,100 people. Medical care, for most people there, is essentially nonexistent.

Enter the World Telehealth Initiative, which has begun using InTouch’s donated high-tech hardware and cloud-based network to benefit a fistula clinic in Malawi.

Through this set-up, OB-GYNs in the United States are able to team up with clinic personnel in Malawi and similar locales, and oversee treatment and surgeries to repair the fistulas and give these women a shot at resuming a normal life.

In addition to the clinic in Malawi, the WTI has similarly equipped facilities and hospitals in Bangladesh, Haiti and Puerto Rico, and is setting up operations in Argentina.

Use of the equipment and network is not limited to fistula treatment, and is adaptable to virtually any medical specialty, Allen noted.

Long-term plans call for vastly expanding the reach of the WTI throughout the world, with a current goal of some 50 sites.

To help make all this happen, InTouch Health and WTI have teamed up with Santa Barbara-based Direct Relief, which has the infrastructure and expertise to identify needs and prospective locations, and handle most of the logistics.

Andrew MacCalla, who heads up international programs and emergency preparedness and response for Direct Relief, said what the WTI is doing already has had an impact.

“Malawi and Bangladesh are the best cases thus far,” he said. “You had doctors in the U.S. already traveling back and forth to these countries to provide treatment. To now have them be able to do it from their own homes, and to recruit other doctors to join them — I think it's a game-changer.”

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InTouch Health and Direct Relief recently hosted an event to introduce the World Telehealth Initiative to the community, and to kick off its fundraising efforts.

The gathering included a tour of InTouch Health’s facility at 6330 Hollister Ave., and a walk through the company’s Innovation Center, where mock-ups of its hardware demonstrate the various applications of the technology — both in the developed world and for the WTI’s needs.

The hardware ranges from a 5½-foot tall mobile robot with advanced audio, video, control and data capabilities, to simple tablets and cell phones. It is used domestically in a variety of settings, and is particularly beneficial in rural areas where there is no easy access to health-care facilities and medical specialists.

Dr. Iftikher Mahmood, a pediatrican based in Florida, demonstrates the InTouch Health technology used by the World Telehealth Initiative during a recent presentation at Direct Relief in Goleta. Click to view larger
Dr. Iftikher Mahmood, a pediatrican based in Florida, demonstrates the InTouch Health technology used by the World Telehealth Initiative during a recent presentation at Direct Relief in Goleta. He is consulting in real time with medical personnel and patients in Bangldesh. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)

During the event, Dr. Iftikher Mahmood demonstrated the WTI’s capabilities, using the InTouch technology to interact via audio and video with a fistula clinic in Bangladesh.

A pediatrician who today lives in Florida, Mahmoud is from Bangladesh, and makes regular trips to his home country to provide medical care.

During the demonstration, he was able to communicate with medical personnel and patients at the clinic, all of which was displayed in real time on a giant video screen at Direct Relief’s new headquarters at 6100 Wallace Becknell Road near the Santa Barbara Airport.

WTI currently is operating on a relatively austere annual budget of some $400,000, with a target of serving 50 programs, Allen said. Funding comes from private donors and members of the organization’s board, Allen said, and grants are being sought.

WTI also is actively engaged in a fundraising campaign. The current goal, she said, is $50,000, which will allow WTI to fully implement 21 programs that have received approval, and begin the process for 15 more.

“The value we’re providing is enormous compared to the budget we need to do it,” Allen said.

                                                                 •        •        •

Both Wang and Allen bring clearly personal passion to the World Telehealth Initiative.

Yulun Wang Click to view larger
Yulun Wang

Wang, 58, earned his Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering from UC Santa Barbara in 1988. Since then, he has applied his education and talents mainly in the medical field.

Prior to forming InTouch Health, Wang founded Computer Motion, a Goleta-based company that was a pioneer in medical robotics, and later merged with a similar firm.

Wang explained that through his years working with medical technology, “I’ve learned quite a bit about the inequality of health care around the world.”

With InTouch growing and succeeding as a for-profit company, he found inspiration to do something on another level.

“InTouch is going to have a really nice impact in the areas of the world that can afford it ...” Wang said. “I came to realize that, with very little additional load on the InTouch network, we could provide care to a lot of people who are truly in need.

“We are able to bring world-class care to areas of the world that desperately need it.”

Sharon Allen Click to view larger
Sharon Allen

Allen, 56, comes to the World Telehealth Initiative from a very different background.

A graduate of Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, she spent more than two decades as an executive in the landscape-supply business as CEO of Aqua-Flo Supply.

Despite her success in business, Allen said, “I never really asked myself, what do you want to do?”

A mother of four whose oldest two children are in college, she finally reached “an age and stage that I decided I wanted to do something with more social impact.”

After exploring several possibilities — “I left there and was all over the map” — Allen learned about Wang’s vision for leveraging the InTouch Health technology to benefit people in need around the world.

She jumped on board with the WTI, and enthusiastically proclaims, “The people I get to work with are incredible. This is the greatest job ever.”

                                                                 •        •        •

Esperanza with the medical personnel who treated her for her fistula at a medical clinic in Malawi. Click to view larger
Esperanza with the medical personnel who treated her for her fistula at a medical clinic in Malawi. (Sharon Allen / World Telehealth Initiative photo)

For all Esperanza has been through, it’s hard to characterize her as lucky, but Allen notes that she was fortunate to have endured her fistula condition for less than a year before receiving treatment, and that her husband did not leave her.

Esperanza first came to the Malawi clinic in May of this year, but was unable to stay long enough to have the needed surgery. She returned in October for her first operation, and will be back in January for another surgery to repair the second hole.

Allen noted that Esperanza has since become part of the process of educating other women with fistulas in Malawi that there is a fix for their condition.

“This fistula clinic has set up a program where the women upon leaving can become ambassadors, and they’re given a bike and a cell phone,” Allen said. “And their job is to go out to their communities and say, I had a fistula, this is what a fistula is. Do you know anybody that has it. Have them talk to me.

“We can help them.”                                                              

» Click here to learn more about the World Telehealth Initiative.

» Click here to make a donation to the World Telehealth Initiative.

» Click here to learn more about InTouch Health.

» Click here to learn more about Direct Relief.

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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