In Africa, 470,000 babies die each year on the day they are born. Can a video game, a virtual reality headset, and a crowdfunding campaign, really make a difference?

After spending many years developing, delivering and disseminating face-to-face neonatal and paediatric emergency care training in Kenya, Professor Mike English had an idea for a pioneering new project. By creating a scenario-based mobile gaming platform, he believed it would be possible to give healthcare workers – including those without any access to traditional forms of training – the knowledge they needed to provide life-saving treatment to newborns, children, mothers and others.

Three years later and Professor English, Consultant Paediatrician and Senior Research Fellow at KEMRI-Wellcome Trust in Nairobi, is joined by Dr Chris Paton, Dr Hilary Edgcombe, and an international team of health and technology professionals to make LIFE (Life-saving Instruction for Emergencies) a reality.

Professor Mike English and Dr Chris Paton. Credit PS:Unlimited Photography

Getting things off the ground

‘It seemed like a good idea, but I didn’t know how to do it,’ says Professor English. ‘Making it happen really depended on getting more people involved.’ After trying years earlier to secure funding for the project – with no success – his newly assembled team suggested something different: crowdfunding.

They had just four weeks to reach an ambitious target of £60,000. ‘For a project like this, that’s difficult to get funded in other ways, it was really well suited for what we wanted to do,’ explains Dr Chris Paton, Head of Oxford’s Global Health Informatics group. ‘Part of the appeal of crowdfunding is that it’s like a competition to get the money you need. It really spurred us on.’

To their relief, the campaign gathered momentum, accruing donations from over a hundred individuals as well as a number of generous gifts from organisations including HTC, Médecins Sans Frontières and the Skoll Foundation. The money raised was crucial for moving beyond strategic planning, enabling the team to construct a prototype of the game, which is now being user tested in Kenya and the UK.

We now need to look at how we get it out to the people who need it, how we develop it so we’ve got new scenarios, and how we take advantage of new technologies.Dr Chris Paton

Extending the reach of traditional face-to-face training

The aim of the project is to develop a system that will drastically extend the reach of traditional emergency care training programmes. ‘Face-to-face training is very expensive to provide, and so it can be hard to deliver at high coverage across what are sometimes large countries with dispersed health facilities,’ explains Professor English, who has seen first-hand the difficulties in providing up-to-date, face-to-face training for doctors, clinical officers, nurses and students in Kenya.

Over this period, only a tiny proportion of the 2.5 million healthcare workers in Africa will have been reached by traditional face-to-face training. ‘This is what makes this mobile technology so appealing,’ he says. ‘If you set up the correct infrastructure, you can reach a much, much greater number of people, far more efficiently.’

The game will teach healthcare workers the latest WHO guidelines, and will contain built-in reminders to stay up-to-date and refresh what has been learned. There are also plans to link it with a professional accreditation strategy.

Professor Mike English testing the virtual reality gear. Credit PS:Unlimited Photography

Taking seed funding to scale

Buoyed by their crowdfunding success, the team entered LIFE into the Saving Lives at Birth Grand Challenge – an international competition established to find transformative treatment approaches for pregnant women and newborns. In September, they were revealed as one of the challenge’s twelve winners.

With the prize money, they have been able to extend their original testing programme. ‘Saving Lives at Birth have been particularly interested in how we could take this seed funding to scale,’ explains Dr Paton. ‘We now need to look at how we get it out to the people who need it, how we develop it so we’ve got new scenarios, and how we take advantage of new technologies.’

Part of their strategy involves the development of a new virtual reality version of the game, for use in teaching hospitals and medical schools across Africa. Working alongside technology company HTC, they hope to capitalise on the immersive nature of the platform to make the training even more effective. ‘People can just step straight in and start using it,’ says Dr Paton.

The system will take time to develop, but the team is committed. ‘We really want to experiment with it over the next 12 months or so, see how we can best use it for training, and how it would compliment what we’re doing on the mobile phone,’ says Dr Paton. ‘We’re really excited to see what the future holds.’