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How a Lego-like shipping container is bringing the future of mobile medicine to Harris County

The future of mobile medicine is coming to Harris County, focused initially on community-based COVID-19 testing but available for any emergency response or disease care.

The so-called SmartPods, portable aluminum units developed by Baylor College of Medicine for the Ebola outbreak in Africa and envisioned by NASA for the Mars habitat, will be deployed in the United States for the first time in east Harris County’s Precinct 2. The initiative is the brainchild of Commissioner Adrian Garcia, who sees the units as a way to increase health care access and keep people out of hospitals.

“This is the 21st century MASH unit being made available here,” said Garcia. “Tents were the first phase. This is the second phase.”

The first of the SmartPods opened Tuesday at Northeast Community Center in Aldine. Two more will follow, one at East Harris Activity Center in Pasadena and one at Flukinger Community Center in Channelview. Dates for their openings have not yet been set.

Each SmartPod is a modular four-room medical unit — self-contained, fully powered but capable of going off grid, impervious to outside weather conditions — inside a recycled shipping container that inventor Dr. Sharmila Anandasabapathy says is “almost like Ikea.” Anandasabathy, an internal medicine professor and the director of Baylor Global Initiatives, touts how the pods can be linked like Legos, how they fold up in minutes. Though they don’t travel themselves, they can be easily picked up and transported to areas of need, typically by truck but also by ship or helicopter, for instance.

The pods cost less than 5 percent of a brick-and-mortar medical unit, said Anandasabapathy. Precinct 2 is spending a total of $2.9 million in county funding on the Aldine and Pasadena units, money that covers their design, construction, transport, medical equipment and medical services. The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) is expected to reimburse the money.

It is unclear if other Harris County commissioners will purchase units for their precincts, but Anandasabapathy said future plans call for the installation of two more in Precinct 2 — one for women’s health, and one for mental health. The SmartPod in Channelview, on loan from Baylor, will focus on primary care.

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Baylor is getting requests for the pods from other entities around the nation and globe. For now, it is able to build the units on demand, but hopes to turn the manufacturing over to a spin-off company by the end of the year.

The pods in Aldine and Pasadena, focused on COVID-19, feature respiratory isolation rooms. The hermetically sealed, negative-pressure rooms decrease the risk of airborne transmission of disease and enable doctors to treat contagious, sick patients in a safe way. Such rooms are impossible in tents and rare even in U.S. clinics.

More Information

Features of the SmartPod:

— 8 x 20 foot container that expands manually into a 400 square foot facility.

— Can withstand winds up to 116 miles per hour,

OU college of medicine plans mobile classroom to promote diversity in health professions

OKLAHOMA CITY — A large RV, customized as a health education classroom on wheels, is among the new projects the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine plans with a $2.8 million grant from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration.

The grant is a one-year supplement that augments an initial $4.7 million award to the OU College of Medicine last year. The aim of the grant is to recruit, retain and admit students from rural, tribal and medically underserved areas, and to expand the primary care experience among current medical students. Data shows that students from those groups who attend medical school and residency in Oklahoma are more likely to return to their communities to practice medicine.

“Of Oklahoma’s 77 counties, 76 have a shortage of primary care physicians, and the need is particularly great in rural areas, underserved communities and tribes. The ultimate goal of this grant is to reduce healthcare disparities among Oklahomans and raise the health of the state,” said Steven Crawford, M.D., Senior Associate Dean of the College of Medicine and director of the Office of Healthcare Innovation and Policy. Crawford is leading the grant with James Herman, M.D., Dean of the OU-TU School of Community Medicine on the Tulsa campus.

The mobile classroom will allow the OU College of Medicine to introduce young people across Oklahoma to careers in health and to give them hands-on experience with activities like suturing, using a stethoscope or a microscope. The classroom will especially be geared toward smaller communities with fewer resources. Students from those areas may have the interest and skills to enter a health profession, but lack the opportunities to pursue it, said Robert Salinas, M.D., Assistant Dean for Diversity in the College of Medicine and a faculty lead for the grant.

“This mobile classroom will be a major asset in our outreach and in building long-term relationships with young people,” Salinas said. “This is not a one-year event, but is part of our efforts to build a pathway to medical school in which we mentor them over several years.”

Current students from all seven colleges at the OU Health Sciences Center, as well as the Anne and Henry Zarrow School of Social Work on OU’s Norman campus, will accompany the mobile classroom on trips around the state as part of their training to care for patients as an interprofessional team. They will not only introduce their chosen disciplines to the young people they encounter, but also see first-hand the challenges of life in underserved areas, where there are numerous barriers to good health.

The grant supplement will also allow the OU College of Medicine to launch the Medical School Readiness Program, an opportunity for students to be mentored as they prepare for the Medical College Admission Test, take part in mock interviews and job shadowing. This program is geared toward highly motivated students who traditionally have lacked the resources, because of time or money, to prepare for medical school.

The OU-TU School of Community Medicine, the

Ebola SmartPods bring future of mobile medicine to Harris County

The future of mobile medicine arrived in Harris County Tuesday, focused initially on community-based COVID-19 testing but available for any emergency response or disease care.

The so-called SmartPods, portable aluminum units developed by Baylor College of Medicine for the Ebola outbreak in Africa and envisioned by NASA for the Mars habitat, will be deployed in the United States for the first time in east Harris County’s Precinct 2. The initiative is the brainchild of Commissioner Adrian Garcia, who sees the units as a way to increase health care access and keep people out of hospitals.

“This is the 21st century MASH unit being made available here,” said Garcia, whose precinct is one of the region’s most medically underserved areas. “Tents were the first phase. This is the second phase.”

Each SmartPod is a modular three-bed medical unit — self-contained, fully powered, impervious to outside weather conditions — inside recycled shipping containers that inventor Sharmila Anandasabapathy says is “almost like Ikea.” Anandasabathy, an internal medicine doctor and the director of Baylor Global Initiatives, touts how the units are put together like Legos and can be folded up in minutes.

The pods cost less than 5 percent of the cost of a brick-and-mortar medical unit, said Anandasabapathy. Garcia is spending a total of $2.9 million on the units, which includes design, construction, transport, medical equipment and medical services.

The first of the SmartPods opened Tuesday at Northeast Community Center in Aldine. Others will be stationed at East Harris Activity Center in Pasadena and Flukinger Community Center in Channelview.

It is unclear if other Harris County precincts will purchase the units.

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