Latest News

How a Hospital Ship Relies on Satellite to Save Lives

By Caleb Henry | March 4, 2016
Africa Mercy hospital ship

The Africa Mercy hospital ship. Photo: Mercy Ships

[Via Satellite 03-04-2016] Off the coast of sub-Saharan Africa there is a hospital ship where volunteers have conducted thousands of life-changing, often life-saving surgeries and medical procedures. Operated by Mercy Ships, a nonprofit with teams of professionals from around the world, this vessel uses satellite communications to heal and teach people in areas with limited resources.

Maritime is a big and growing area for satellite communications, but Mercy Ships is not your typical example. Since 1978, the organization has operated between one and three ships, reaching people with medical services and teaching life skills in more than 70 countries. Today, the Texas-based nonprofit uses one ship known as Africa Mercy. Chris Gregg, chief information officer at Mercy Ships, told Via Satellite that satellite technology has played a role on Mercy Ships since its first charity ship, the Anastasis, sailed in the early 1980s, and that the applications for satellite are changing.

“Running an organization like this requires a lot of close collaboration between our staff on our hospital ship, our offices around the world, and our shore teams that are working off the ship,” said Gregg. “The satellite communications provide that core communications off ship to our offices, and to staff supporting the ship. We are probably more integrated in terms of the involvement of the shore offices with what goes on onboard than you would probably see in a normal merchant vessel. The actual operation on board is tied very closely with our support office, whether that be supply or hospital programs, or even IT or finances.”

Mercy Ships programs are split between two main areas of focus: direct medical service, and medical training. Medical services include surgeries and treatments, and training involves teaching professionals within local medical systems to build up a lasting skill base.

“For surgeries in particular there are two key areas — lab and radiology — that are particularly influenced by a connection with satellite,” explained Michelle Bullington, programs design director at Mercy Ships. “In our lab we use it to help with diagnoses from a remote location back here in the U.S. Also all of our scans from our radiology department are read remotely. It is important for us to help achieve our mission in terms of treating people.”

Bullington said Mercy Ships is evaluating new ways to use satellite, particularly for training. With satellite-enabled video, the organization could teach both staff and beneficiaries using lessons delivered from land.

“We see as a future area of growth that using video for training can be beneficial in terms of sharing curriculum or ideas with other groups and organizations. There are others who are interested in this type of work as well, so we can share ideas and train more people in Africa more effectively,” said Bullington.

Gregg said today Mercy Ships uses video primarily as a means to cut down travel costs. In lieu of in-person meetings, video often takes the place of expensive flights. He said video applications are increasing significantly, but that the organization is still evaluating the best ways to use available satellite resources.

“We are still trying to figure that out, how to provide video capacity while still balancing the business processes and business applications and all of those things that run over satellite, along with crew welfare,” he said.

In addition to assisting with telemedicine, Mercy Ships volunteers use satellite to tell their stories. This is important because the entire staff — mariners, surgeons, nurses, cooks, etc. — are all volunteers, with approximately 400 people on the vessel on average. Gregg said most are funded by sponsorship, so satellite supports not only the delivery of programs, but enables crew to raise money to further their work.

Providing these communications is long time partner is EMC, formerly MTN, which has provided connectivity to Mercy Ships for roughly 15 years.

“Not only are we a technical partner, but we also help with their fundraising efforts,”

Brent Horwitz, president of cruise and ferry services at EMC, told Via Satellite. “As an example, when we do our holiday cards, we make a donation to them and give the recipients of the cards an opportunity to donate to a good cause.”

Horwitz described Mercy Ships as a unique customer, since in maritime EMC, particularly through what was MTN, serves lots of vessels for leisure, energy, government and shipping markets. Recently EMC and Mercy Ships signed a new agreement to increase the amount of satellite capacity, as well as to upgrade communication systems, including the rollout of EMC’s HD Connect, a global on-demand video service. Horwitz said this service could be used for telemedicine as well as team meetings. EMC also provides two television channels through MTN TV, and is providing SpeedNet, a browser plugin designed to lower latency, coupled with Wide Area Network (WAN) optimization technology from Riverbed Technology.

Even with this, Gregg said Mercy Ships is interested in seeing the price of bandwidth come down so that the organization can make more use of satellite communications.

“As good as it is, it’s still constraining how we deliver IP and communications. Along with that, we are seeing more growth with shore connections and the changing situation as it relates to the available connectivity in the ports that we visit. So we are watching that space closely as well. As we go into the future, I can see a hybrid for us between affordable low latency High Throughput Satellite (HTS) and improved shore connections when they are available,” he said.

Horwitz said EMC has focused on improving compression and other technologies to maximize the efficiency of satellite communications. The company is also able to consolidate volume as a benefit of providing connectivity to thousands of land-based and maritime sites, he said. EMC has terrestrial communications in around 30 ports, but these are primarily located in popular cruising locations in the Caribbean, Northern Europe and the Mediterranean. Going forward, he anticipates HTS will make a big difference to Mercy Ships, along with other customers.

“One of the ways we see our strategy going forward is really to utilize a lot of the high throughput satellites, and when the ship goes to the West Coast, eventually we will be able to have high throughput Ku satellites in Western Africa where the ship operates so we will have capability for C-band and Ku-band,” he said.

Mercy Ships is currently building a second vessel, which Bullington said is about two years away from completion. Aside from potential for greater video services, Gregg said as it relates to connectivity, the fundamentals of the ship will be essentially the same. Bullington said the new ship will include designated training areas for simulations, which Africa Mercy does not have. In the future she said video could be used more extensively for training African healthcare workers.