Small, aluminum-frame building on blocks (USAID)
The Smart Pod at ELWA Hospital in Monrovia, Liberia (USAID)

A tiny hospital called the Smart Pod is in the works for rapid deployment to the next medical emergency, wherever it may be.

The Smart Pod was created by the Baylor Global Innovation Center, a branch of the Baylor College of Medicine that develops low-cost medical technologies for low-resource settings. Baylor made a prototype with a grant from the Fighting Ebola Grand Challenge, an initiative of the U.S. Agency for International Development to find private-sector solutions to major challenges seen during the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

“The key thing we learned from the Ebola outbreak was, to have innovations working in a crisis, they need to be working outside of a crisis,” says Jennifer Fluder, the senior adviser for innovation and partnerships at USAID.

One of the biggest challenges that medical teams faced in 2014 was quick access to adequate facilities where they could treat patients safely. The Smart Pod was developed by the director of Baylor Global Health, Dr. Sharmila Anandasabapathy, as a clean and stable setting for doctors working remotely in places with unreliable access to power, water and other basic medical necessities.

“These are the same challenges that were seen with the Ebola epidemic where the environment was very inhospitable,” says Anandasabapathy.

Woman doctor standing with arms crossed (Lindsey Kingston Lampp, Baylor College of Medicine)
Dr. Sharmila Anandasabapathy stands in a prototype of the Smart Pod. (© Lindsey Kingston Lampp/Baylor College of Medicine)

The pod’s 2.4-by-6 meter aluminum shell is within international shipping standards so it can be sent by air, land or sea.

Once the pod arrives, a team of four can set it up in less than five minutes. The container’s aluminum siding folds out into a sturdy roof and floor connected by insulated canvas walls. Inside are beds, sinks, latrines and a medical workstation for health care providers. It functions off-grid, but it can be connected to any power source and water line. The pod can be outfitted with different medical equipment based on its intended use, but the standard-issue design can be an effective isolation unit for treating patients with highly infectious diseases.

Dr. Steven Yeh and Dr. Jessica Shantha of Emory Eye Center in Atlanta worked from a pod at ELWA Hospital in Monrovia, Liberia, in September 2017. They screened Ebola survivors for remnants of the virus in their optic fluid before operating on them for cataracts, a common side effect of the disease.

Yeh says that the Smart Pod was extremely helpful from an organizational and safety standpoint. Previously, their team had done the same procedure in Sierra Leone in a makeshift space closed off by a tarp hung on a hook. The pod’s adjustable walls let them isolate patients so they could contain the virus if it were found in the screenings. “The Smart Pod was pretty awesome,” says Shantha. “It was a safe environment.”

The prototype pod is still in Liberia, being used as ELWA hospital’s isolation unit, filling a gap needed for treating patients with Lassa fever and other infectious diseases common to West Africa. Baylor is also collecting feedback from ELWA staff on how they can improve its functionality.

Both Baylor and USAID are looking into expanded uses for the tiny hospital beyond infectious diseases and emergency response — ranging from using it as a mobile lab or pharmacy to a stand-alone clinic.

“It can be used to expand hospital capabilities, and it can be moved into a hot spot as needed,” says Anandasabapathy. “The pod is an ideal part of the global security agenda.”