Tech by VICE

​How a Car is Changing the Face of Medical Care in Rural India

In hard to reach areas, a feature laden vehicle can mean the difference between life and death.

by Olivia Marks
May 18 2016, 4:12pm

Illustrator: Hisham Bharoocha

In India, 72 percent of the population lives in rural areas–around 716 million people. Despite this, the majority of the country's doctors and medical resources are based in urban areas, where just 27 percent of the population resides. Unsurprisingly, it can be difficult for many people to access the medical assistance they need. One group who are particularly vulnerable outside of cities and their facilities are expectant mothers.

Over the past four years, access to healthcare in rural India has been something that Ford and its partners have tried to improve through its Project SUMURR–Sustainable Urban Mobility with Uncompromised Rural Reach. At the heart of the program was the Ford Endeavour. These vehicles not only helped mothers and children with faster access to medical care they need, but also radicalised important data collection through associated mobile technology.

Kallakurichi, a municipality in the Tamil Nadu region of southern India, near the city of Chennai, was an area that was identified as being a good place to pilot the program. "The Tamil Nadu Directorate of Public Health & Preventative Medicine said to us that we shouldn't do something easy," said Ford's Senior Technical Lead for Innovation, K. Ventakesh Prasad. "We should try something hard and even if it wasn't successful, we would learn from it anyway."

"What we didn't want to do was get a small pot of money, take some photographs… then fly off and come back six months later [to] show some smiling children and then make that part of an annual report," Prasad explained. "It's easy to give money, but hard to actually get something done in a sustainable way."

The remote villages that make up Kallakurichi are not easy to reach – it's a mountainous area where roads are made from gravel and hard to travel on. Village health nurses are forced to either visit on foot, or by bicycle, and it's not unusual that some pregnant women receive no medical treatment or attention at all during pregnancy.

An extreme environment such as Kallakurichi places tough physical demands on pregnant women. This is one of the reasons that 50 percent of women are deemed at risk of suffering health complications during pregnancy and childbirth. Of those at risk, explained Prasad, two percent will suffer a fatal outcome–either the pregnancy will end in the death of the mother, or of the baby, or in some cases, both mother and baby will pass away.

Illustrator: Hisham Bharoocha

Clearly, being able to quickly reach those women is crucial. "On such terrain, the Endeavour can get to places other vehicles simply cannot," said Prasad. "We found, quite un-expectedly, that expectant mothers started to synonymise the Endeavour with emergency medical help."

While delivery of medical supplies, or driving women to healthcare facilities is an important way of ensuring the safety of women and children, another crucial way Project SUMURR aimed to help was through bettering medical databases using mobile technology. By enhancing databases, doctors and nurses are able to more easily track those women who might be deemed at risk, thus improving their chances of having a healthy and successful birth. Although India has an excellent reputation for recording statistics, village nurses often have to collect data using a notepad, travelling by foot for hours to visit patients who they may or may not be able to find.

"A village health nurse goes to visit the newly expectant mother, greets them, and gets to know them. But before she gets into her third trimester, the pregnant woman will often go away to be in the place of her birth with her parents, meaning she will drop off the database," Prasad explained of one of the difficulties faced in compiling an accurate database. As such, the database of women in the area was incomplete, out-of-date and had erroneous entries. By equipping the Ford Endeavour with a wireless cloud, the team were able to introduce voice-to-text technology which enabled real-time data entry, providing doctors with a better understanding of their patients and their needs.

Over the nine months that the program was in operation, 28 villages were reached and 42 children were born safely–with just one Ford Endeavour. But the journey doesn't stop there. Ford is looking to improve medical treatment in urban areas as well. In cities like Delhi where road traffic fatalities are high, there is what is known as the "Golden Hour"–a crucial sixty minutes where a life can still be saved. In order to maximise the chances of survival, Ford is looking to find solutions that decrease the time it takes to get a person to hospital, or by improving the speed at which doctors can access medical records.

It just goes to show what one car can do.